Memories of partition: One man’s return to Pakistan
Seventy years on, a now 92-year-old man returns to the home he fled during the ‘poison’ of partition.
When Krishan Kumar Khanna, a 22-year-old worker in Sheikhupura’s bustling rice market, left home, he had no idea that he would be gone this long.
“When we left, we had just put a lock on the house, thinking that we’d return within 10 or 15 days,” he says. “We were convinced of it.”
But that return never happened.
military came and beat us out of our neighbourhoods.”]
The date was August 27, 1947, just 13 days after the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, as the region gained independence from Britain.
It is described by historians as perhaps the largest political migration in human history, with an estimated 15 million people fleeing their homes.
It was also, perhaps, one of the most violent.
Conservative estimates say that at least a million people were killed in the mass communal riots and widespread slaughter between religious communities that followed.
Trains carrying migrants heading in either direction – Muslims going west to the newly formed West Pakistan or east to East Pakistan; and Hindus leaving those areas – were attacked, sometimes pulling in to their destinations with hardly a living soul left aboard.
“We wanted to stay, we wanted to remain where we were. Partition happened, even then we still remained,” says Khanna, now 92 and with failing eyesight and hearing.
His family was Hindu, and their home was now in West Pakistan.
“Then the [Pakistani] military came and beat us out of our neighbourhoods. There was a ‘poison’ spreading then. People who had become Muslim refugees arrived [in the neighbourhood] as well, and questioned why these Hindus were still here.”
The killings had started.
“Outside my uncle’s house, I saw seven bodies, covered in blood,” he says. “Their blood was flowing into the street, and I stepped over it to get into the house. I still remember that blood today. The blood touched my feet and, as I was walking down the street, a man said to me: ‘Is this the freedom that you wanted?'”
Khanna could not comprehend the scale of the violence. For centuries, he says, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities had lived in harmony in his town. “We were a symbol of unity,” he reflects, ruefully.
“But there was a strange atmosphere then, and people fell into it. Men did not have the will to kill people … but when the ‘poison’ spread. It happened, and we had to flee.”
The trauma of forced displacement
Khanna’s characterisation of a “poison”, or “madness”, overtaking people is fairly typical of narrative accounts of partition. Recent research, however, suggests that the violence was far more structured than previously understood.
“Partition violence has been accepted by many as anarchic and chaotic in nature, as madness even,” says Ali Raza, a Lahore-based historian.
“[But] we need to seriously examine the role of paramilitary groups – Muslim, Hindu and Sikh – who carefully planned and orchestrated violence with varying success across North India. In the Punjab for instance, one would also need to look at the crucial role played by princely states and by the thousands of decommissioned, and in some cases, serving soldiers.”
Moreover, Raza explains, there are accounts of battlefield weapons, such as machineguns and mortars, being used to target civilian populations in certain districts, forcing them to migrate.
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For survivors, however, “madness” was often the only explanation left, and the sheer scale of the violence and the chaotic nature of their displacement have made notions of ever going “home” difficult.
“This anxiety [around going home] is centrally related to the trauma of forced displacement and the sense of loss, helplessness and despair that accompanied it,” says Kavita Panjabi, a partition scholar whose own family fled the Sindh region for present-day India during partition.
“Parting makes that which one is estranged from even more dear, and violent partings leave one with the fear that all that one loved will have been destroyed.”
The violence was traumatic, Panjabi says, not just for the generation that witnessed it, but for all those who came after, shaping their identities and, in some cases, cutting them off from their own history.
‘I want to see my home’
Now, after 70 years, Krishan Kumar Khanna is finally going home.
“I have a passion to see my home. My wife told me not to go. Who knows what might happen? But it was just a passion inside me to see my own home, my own town, what it is like now,” says Khanna from his hometown of Meerut in India.
When pressed on what he hopes to discover on the trip, Khanna simply repeats: “I want to see my home, I want to see my home, I want to see my home.”
The need is clear, although the energy that drives it is difficult to articulate, he agrees.
His family, meanwhile, opposes his desire to visit present-day Pakistan, with whom India has fought three wars since independence in 1947 and who it accuses of fomenting violence in the disputed territory of Kashmir – a charge Pakistan denies.
“We are totally against this trip. [Pakistan] isn’t a place of pilgrimage for us,” says his wife Kamla Khanna, 87, just days before he is due to leave. “I told him not to go. What is he going to do there in Pakistan? It’s the same place where we saw so much violence, so many fights. So why go there now?”
But Khanna is determined. He has been trying to get a visa for 20 years, he says. His previous applications were all rejected, but this time, after securing the help of an influential former army officer, he is successful.
“Maybe I’ll find some of my friends. But who knows where they will be now,” he reflects.
‘The soil is the same’
I thought that partition was a mistake. This was the thought at the start, and it's the same now. It's wrong, and should not have happened on religious grounds.
After an overnight train journey from Meerut to the city of Amritsar, Khanna is finally at the border that was created all those years ago, wrenching him from his home.
This is one of the most militarised borders in the world, with the nuclear-armed neighbours allowing people to cross on foot at only one location: Wagah/Attari.
After an interrogation by an Indian border police officer, who makes an impassioned plea for him not to go, and similar questioning by Pakistani authorities, he is finally allowed to cross.
He moves slowly, leaning on his walking stick, and peering into the distance to catch sight of the fields beyond. All those years ago he made exactly this journey, but in the opposite direction, as he and his family were evacuated in Indian military trucks.
Khanna steps off the road and into a lush, green field.
“I am thankful to God. I have now crossed the border into Pakistan,” he says. “Back home in our Punjab, the landscape is the same. The soil is the same, and the people are the same.”
What follows is a whirlwind trip. The first stop is the historic Mughal city of Lahore, about 23km away, where Khanna once studied. He retraces his old neighbourhood of Rang Mahal carefully, finding one of the schools where he studied, and the places he used to frequent as a teenager.
“I was sitting in this park reading,” Khanna says, pointing to a bench in Lahore’s Gol Bagh. “That was when the decision to create Pakistan was made. Someone came and told me that there is a curfew in the city, what are you doing sitting over here? I said I didn’t even know there was a curfew.”
At the time, Khanna, who was a youth worker for Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian National Congress party, opposed partition.
“I thought that partition was a mistake. This was the thought at the start, and it’s the same now. It’s wrong, and should not have happened on religious grounds.”
Soon, it is time to move towards Sheikhpura, Khanna’s family’s hometown.
‘Everything is the same, there are no differences’
A bustling city of about a million people in Pakistan’s northern Punjab province, the Sheikhupura of today bears little resemblance to the place where Khanna grew up. Nevertheless, he is able to track down his neighbourhood of Guru Nanak Pura (now known as Jinnah Park, after Pakistan’s founder) with little trouble.
“We knew where it was, and the neighbourhood was the same. There is no room for it to change. There’s no space,” he says.
As he enters the street that he grew up in, he points to a small concrete building at the end of the alley.
“This is my old house,” he says, taking a hesitant step towards it.
When partition occurred, refugee families on both sides of the border were often housed in homes vacated by those who had fled to the other side. And so it was here – a migrating Muslim family had moved into Khanna’s family home.
They have made some changes to it over the years, but it is still recognisable to a visibly moved Khanna, who walks through the rooms, his eyes wide in wonder.
“This is great,” he says, touching the palms of his hands to the surface of his old wooden desk, and then to his forehead, repeatedly. “Wow,” he says.
The current occupants show him around, allowing him to dwell on his family’s old belongings, and his own memories.
“The book belongs to the person who reads it,” he says, as he leaves the house. “The pen belongs to the person who writes with it, and the house belongs to the one who lives in it. The house is theirs now.”
A few days later, Khanna visits his old school, shown around by the government-run institute’s headmaster. He points to a wall over which he once jumped to escape from class, to raucous laughter from the teachers, and answers questions from students excited to meet a rare visitor from the other side of the border.
And then it is time to return to India.
“My heart doesn’t feel like leaving. I feel like staying here for two more days,” he tells his brother, who insists it is time to go.
On his return to Meerut, Khanna is mobbed by his children and grandchildren, anxious to hear his stories. But he is quiet, responding to their flurry of questions with short, simple answers.
When asked later what it felt like to be in his old town again, Khanna sounds almost melancholic.
“I felt like I was walking around in Punjab – not in India or in Pakistan. And I was just enjoying myself doing that. I didn’t feel like I was in India or Pakistan. The same people, the same faces, everything is the same, there are no differences.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.
Watch Khanna’s journey in Going Back to Pakistan on Witness.