Muhammad Muslehuddin Malik was a teenage schoolboy from a well-to-do Muslim household in Delhi when partition happened. His family was uprooted from their ancestral home and survived the partition riots as they made their way to Pakistan. In the newly built Muslim nation, Malik became his family’s main breadwinner for a time. Malik, who is today a leading banker in Pakistan, recounts living through partition and its immediate aftermath.
I was 14 in September 1947 and had just finished high school when one day my maternal uncle brought a tonga ride (a horse-drawn carriage) to our house and told us we had to leave immediately as our neighbourhood was about to be attacked by Hindu mobs. I was aware that a new country called Pakistan had been created for the Muslims of India, but I never imagined we would have to leave our ancestral home and neighbourhood because of our religion.
All the Muslim villages on the outskirts of Delhi had been destroyed and the attackers had now moved on to residential estates within the capital. We lived in Sabzi Mandi, which was one of the three main Muslim majority areas in addition to Karol Bagh and Pahar Ganj to be targeted by Hindu mobs. We were not prepared or armed to deal with such attacks, so moving out was our only option.
The only safe place left for Muslims was Jama Masjid, so our uncle, who lived there, had come to take us with him. He told us we didn’t have time to pack or reconsider, so we left in the state we were in. The women of our family observed the purdah and would never step out of the house without covering their faces, but such was the haste that some of them weren’t even able to wear a scarf over their head before leaving. The idea of packing jewellery and other prized possessions didn’t even cross our minds. It was a matter of life and death. Our only thought was safety first.
The military took over the following day and evicted all Muslim households from different parts of the city, including Jama Masjid. We were all moved to Lal Qila, from where we would leave for Pakistan.
My uncle was working with the government, so he was entitled to move his family to Pakistan by air. We spent a few days at the evacuee camp in Lal Qila before it was our turn to leave for the airport. Until that day, we had never imagined we would be uprooted from our hometown in such a manner. We loved Pakistan and fought for the idea of a Muslim state but didn’t want to leave our home in Delhi. I loved St Stephen’s College, my alma mater, and my friends whom I never saw again.
We spent a few days at Palam Airport (now Indira Gandhi International Airport) as there were no set flight schedules. On one of those days, another uncle took me and my two cousins to a nearby market. While we were away, our turn on the flight to Karachi was announced. My maternal uncle, on whose entitlement we were travelling, decided to leave immediately and left a message for us to take the train to Lahore instead.
Slain train passengers
We boarded an overcrowded train and set off for Lahore at sunset. We had heard reports of brutal attacks on trains carrying Muslims to Pakistan, so we began the 12-hour journey with great trepidation but also with excitement for our new homeland.
The train began to slow down as it approached Amritsar just before sunrise. As it got closer to the station, Sikh men brandishing brazen swords, spears and daggers began climbing on the train in hordes. Luckily, the doors of the cabins were locked and the glass windows shut. I was sitting by the window and could see men raging with anger banging on the door and the windows.
We were sure the train would pull up at the platform and the mob would enter the cabins. Inside the train, it was a scene of great horror. People were crying, screaming and chanting Quranic verses. We were staring death in the face and feared we would be butchered like the thousands who undertook this journey before us.
The train picked up speed again just as it reached the platform, making it difficult for the attackers to keep holding on to the doors. They either hurriedly climbed off or were thrown off by the speeding train. It was a miracle. We couldn’t believe our luck. How our fate changed within minutes remained a mystery. However, some people believed that a British man was guarding the train’s engine and that there were some British soldiers aboard the train, so the driver was urged to keep going.
In the dozens of trains transporting Muslim migrants before and after ours, everyone was killed. Slain. Slaughtered. Muslims were also killing non-Muslims leaving Pakistan. It was a grave attack on all of humanity.
Karachi: ‘A sea of refugee camps’
We reached Lahore at sunrise. It was a moment of great relief. Locals welcomed us at the train station and fed us during our six-hour stay before we continued our journey to Karachi. We were asked to get off the train a few miles outside Karachi at a quarantine camp where we stayed for a few weeks. Here, migrants underwent medical checks for major illnesses and diseases before entering the main city.
For all this time, our family members who had arrived in Karachi a few weeks earlier had no clue where we were or if we had made it out alive amid the train riots. Two weeks later, my uncle arrived at the camp searching for us and was finally able to locate us.
Karachi was a sea of refugee camps when we arrived. Soon, we moved into a two-room unit which was allocated to my uncle. More than a dozen people were crammed into this small living space. I realised I had to take some of the burden off my uncle so I found work as a dispatch clerk in a garment import company.
Once my father arrived from India the burden of being the family’s breadwinner was taken off my shoulders and I went back to my studies. I joined Pakistan’s fledgling banking and finance sector. Within a few years, I was heading the Institute of Bankers Pakistan, which I helped develop into a leading bankers’ development hub in the region.
Such was my devotion to my new homeland that I also joined the military as part of the reserve force in the wake of the 1965 war with India. We were all very passionate about making this new country work. India was lucky as the British left it with a running system of governance, whereas, in Pakistan, we had to start from scratch. There were no official records. Files and records were dumped into small wagons transferred from India overnight.
Even before the riots of 1947, it was obvious that Hindus had the upper hand over Muslims, but there was no sense of intense enmity. However, once partition was announced they turned into worst enemies.
What happened in 1947, especially during the train journey, is deeply etched in my memory. The bloodthirsty faces of the Sikh mobs formed the most haunting moment of my life. Migrating to Pakistan seemed like the only option for Muslims. From being second-class citizens in India we suddenly had a homeland of our own.
As told to Hafsa Adil. This narration has been edited for clarity and length.