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My journey from Amritsar to Lahore

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What did this deeply traumatic incident teach me? Nations must avoid extremism, intolerance and bigotry

BY: Mahmud Ahmad Akhtar

My father was a doctor in the Indian Army Medical Corps. I was born at Bangalore in 1932 where my father was posted at the Military hospital. After postings to Wellington at Nigri Hills, later Madras and Ajmer we lived there. At the outbreak of World War II my father was posted to the Middle East, and later to the war’s Italian theatre. The family shifted to Amritsar where my father’s and mother’s families were already living.

Amritsar was a hot spot of politics. It had been through the trauma of the Jallian Walla episode and various political movements. Movements for Pakistan gained momentum in early 1940s. In the 1946 elections, the Muslim League succeeded in Amritsar and Punjab. However a coalition Government was formed in Punjab headed by Malik Khizer Hayat Khan of Unionist Party along with Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal and Muslim League with the largest number of Provincial legislators in the opposition.

In 1946, the Muslim League carried out a civil disobedience movement against the Khizer Hayat government. Eventually, Malik Khizer Hayat resigned. It was expected that the Nawab of Mamdot, one of the Muslim League’s leaders, would be given a chance to form the government. However, this idea did not sit well with everyone. Master Tara Singh, a prominent Sikh political and religious leader, unsheathed his Kirpan at the Punjab Provincial Assembly Hall, and announced that the Khalsa would not allow a Muslim League government in Punjab. This resulted in communal riots throughout Punjab.

Many clashes took place in Amritsar, with numerous killings and incidents of arson. Entire bazaars were razed to the ground. For three days, the violence continued unabatedly. After three days, a curfew was called in aid of the civil administration for restoring law and order. However tension continued and riots continued to occur sporadically.

In June 1947, the India-Pakistan Independence plan was announced. The division of British India into two dominions, India and Pakistan would be put into effect from August 14, 1947.

In the first week of August the situation worsened in Amritsar. At many localities, non-Muslims were providing protection to Muslims similarly and vice versa. Still, militant Sikhs were able to slaughter a large number of Muslims. One of the biggest massacres transpired at a locality called Chowk Parag Das where local Sikhs were protecting Muslims but were overwhelmed by the militants.

In our Muslim locality, Sharif Pura, Muslims were giving protection to a large number of non-Muslims living in the area. Local Muslim League leaders under an arrangement with the British DC safely evacuated non-Muslims to non-Muslim areas of the city. However, the situation was quickly getting out of hand. Muslim localities all over the city were being attacked by mobs armed with rifles and in some cases grenades as well.

My father was posted to Bangalore Military Hospital and my family was living in Sharif Pura. I was about 15 years old. My mother, along with four of my siblings left Amritsar on August 7, and reached Lahore. I stayed back, believing in the prevailing narrative that Amritsar was likely to be a part of Pakistan. I also thought the disturbances would be transient and law and order would be restored. To my horror, I was soon proven wrong. The carnage only got worse.

On August 15, my uncle Nazir Ahmad who was Head Master of the high school at Narowal (Sialkot) arrived at Sharif Pura to escort me to Lahore. We moved to the Civil Hospital, which had been abandoned by Muslim workers. A Sikh doctor gave us refuge in his house and early next morning, he arranged our transfer to an Indian Army truck manned by non-Muslim soldiers to Amritsar Cantt, where a refugee camp had been opened. The soldiers were very helpful. By now, a large number of refugees were pouring in, and there had been an enormous loss of life.

Eventually, an announcement was made that a train would move from Amritsar Railway Station to Lahore and would take the camp residents to Lahore next afternoon. Next day, the train took the journey under the guard of a military squad commanded by a British Captain. The train reached Lahore’s Walton Cantt within an hour where a refugee camp had been established. I stayed at the camp for the night and next morning boarded the train leaving for the Lahore Railway Station. The entire route was marked by corpses.

At Lahore there were streams of refugees arriving from Indian Punjab. Many trains arrived full of massacred and injured refugees. There were epidemics of cholera in the refugee camps. Eventually we also came to hear of non-Muslims being attacked as they tried to escape Lahore.

What did this deeply traumatic incident teach me? Nations must avoid extremism, intolerance and bigotry. Unfortunately, extremists are finding more and more space to operate in the Pakistan Jinnah created. They were even allowed to participate in the recent elections. We must look back and prevent this Pandora’s Box from being opened again.

  • The writer is former Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army. The write-up was first published in Daily Times.
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