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Memories of Violence: Remembering Partition
Aqeel Ihsan

In this paper, Aqeel shares his findings from in-depth interviews conducted with three Partition survivors, who were children aged fifteen, five, and eight years old in 1947. The essay delves into their pre-Partition memories, as well as their memories of witnessing first-hand the violence and communalism that occurred during the Partition.

From sharing tears of laughter to tears of heartbreak. From celebrating holidays together with fellow villagers, to celebrating days without violence in your home with family members. From running outside with friends, to running for your life. So dramatic was the turn for children during Partition in 1947 whose childhood was cut short overnight. Despite being majorly affected, little is known about how these children endured one of the worst experiences in human history, which would have left them scarred both physically and mentally, damaged in body and spirit. Instead, much of the focus in narratives about partition survivors has been on women who were disproportionately affected by the Partition and made to feel like undesirable beings in the newly independent states of India and Pakistan. More so than the women, the issue over their children was central to the construction of citizenship in both countries. Many felt that illegitimate children had no place in their country because they could truly never represent the ideal citizen. Instead, the child could only belong to the country in which they were born, essentially meaning that “the child belonged to the father”.[1] Today, these children, displaced during Partition who are amongst the last remaining survivors today, and the collective trauma that they underwent and endured has seldom appeared in existent historiography. 


I sought out and interviewed three Partition survivors from both Pakistan and India to document their encounters with various Partition-related events and their memories of the ensuing violence that they experienced as children. The data used in this essay was generated via in-depth interviews with these individuals living in Pakistan and Canada. The interviewees serve as my primary sources and account for the principal body of data for this essay. They consist of a Pakistani male and female (named Fawad Khan and Sanam Baloch, respectively) and an Indian male (named Gurinder Singh).

Safar or Suffer: Gujranwala to Qilla Gujar Singh

My first interviewee was Fawad Khan. Fawad was born in 1932 in Gujranwala, India and was fifteen years old during the Partition. After Partition, Gujranwala became part of Pakistan and was the site of many violent riots.  In 1939, the family was forced to move to Qilla Gujar Singh in the Punjab province to accommodate their large family. Unable to afford transportation, the Khans made their long journey by foot. Even at the age of seven years old Fawad recalled how the path he travelled was covered with bodies and “[he] sadly had to cross over many of them.”[2] He shook his head recalling the sight of insects and birds eating away at people’s flesh, and this was a sight that even eighty years later he was unable to forget. After a brief pause, Fawad described how difficult it was to acquire food.

We crossed many rivers and wells, but we were told not to drink out of those because they were poisoned and those who drank out of them risked dying instantly. We would wait for rain and cup our hands for sustenance. We would also try and capture rainwater and try and store it for our journey. Rain was also a blessing because it cleansed our clothes that were dirty…covered with dirt, other times with blood. Whenever it rained, we believed God was on our side…without this faith, I do not know if traversing such a long distance on foot would have been possible. [3]

Fawad's mother's piyali
A map detailing the long journey that Fawad's family would have had to take in the absence of a motor vehicle.

Unable to carry much, one of the things his mother did carry was kitchen items, one of them being a brass piyali. The piyali would be used to consume water in case rainwater had finished. Though water could have been drank out of any object, this piyali was significant because it had verses from the Holy Qur’an engraved on the inside. This would provide the Khan family with the faith that the water they drank would be purified if there was anything wrong with it. Fawad did not have much besides memories from his journey, but he managed to hold on his mother’s piyali.

Picture taken at Fawad Khan's (left) home in Lahore, Pakistan

The next passage of Fawad’s story was macabre, but his tone did not reflect that. Though he was recalling a gruesome side of humanity using descriptors that were difficult to listen to; it was if he had grown numb to it, and as if it was a story he had told and retold many times over. The events leading up to August 1947 were extremely horrific in nature. In 1947, as he turned fifteen, Fawad recalls how there was a recurring fear for one’s life on a daily basis, and how he witnessed people consumed with bloodlust. He described violent scenes where he saw “people armed with various weapons, including khanjars (dagger), kirpans (knife carried by Sikhs), talwars (sword), barshi (lance with a wooden handle) and other assortments of knives”, and several of them killing people of different religions as if "they were  performing their God-given duty". [4]


Swords, Khanjars, and Daggers, picture p. 371 in W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859.

Another act of violence that solidified the idea that Muslims were a distinctly different race of people from Hindus in India was a story of a train bringing Muslims from Amritsar to Lahore, some of whom were Fawad’s distant relatives. Fawad reiterated the following:

That whole “gari” was butchered en masse by Hindu and Sikh men. We went to remove bodies from the car ourselves. The bodies were fully covered with blood and so was the dirt around it. Some were stabbed multiple times, others had limbs dismembered, and one person I remember having his head chopped off clean. It was a horrific sight and one that I cannot forget. Even performing Islamic burial rites for some bodies was extremely difficult, but we did it nevertheless.[5]

At the ripe age of fifteen, children like Fawad should have been going to school, pursuing educations, and playing outside with their friends, but Fawad’s adolescence was stripped away from him due to the circumstances in his own family and later, due to the violent acts he witnessed, so was his innocence. It is difficult to fathom how Fawad endured the sight of blood-stained train compartments and dismembered figures. Healing from any kind of loss or trauma is difficult, but childhood trauma as graphic as the one described above must have been even harder, especially for someone like Fawad who might not have been equipped with the faculties to process such events. One can only speculate this since he himself did not describe the impact of the violence on him. I assume part of that may have been him needing to show bravado and to stay strong for his family, being one of the eldest males, and a breadwinner.

Armful of Gold: The First Massacre

Sanam Baloch was born in Chauburji Quarters, in present-day day Lahore, Pakistan, on June 15, 1942. She was the youngest in a family of eleven and only five years old when Partition occurred. The quarters where her family resided were restricted to government employees, and consisted of people of different religious backgrounds. In her testimony, Sanam described a ground across from the quarters where all the women would gather during the day to perform various household chores. Women would come to wash their dishes, cut their fruits and vegetables, and cook food for their respective families. Sanam alluded to an interesting detail: no one had personal kitchens and all the utensils they used were communal. Further evidence of friendly relations amongst the women was in regards to their religious practices. Built by the British, these quarters did not account for places of worship. As such, “Hindus and Sikh would worship their gods where they cooked, because that was often the cleanest spot they found. They would put their statues on an elevated platform and do their “puja” while sitting on a stool.”[6] There was no enmity towards one another, “bara pyaar si[7], but this changed as Jinnah’s call for the creation of Pakistan gained traction.


Sanam Baloch sharing fruit with me at the end of our interview at her home in Lahore, Pakistan


A present-day image of Chaburji Quarters.

Sanam recalled that many of her immediate neighbours, Hindu and Sikhs, realized that Chauburji would not fall within the Indian border, and decided to pack up their things and leave. As people began taking their belongings and migrating, laws got strict in Lahore due to the escalation of violence. Sanam remembers that curfews were put in place for all, especially women and children, and no one was allowed to go outside after Maghrib, evening time. Men in the family told the women that if they stepped outside, they would be shot, and whether or not this was true, an element of fear existed amongst members of the household. These fears took shape in the form of a graphic incident that scarred Sanam as a child.

In those days, everyone had two doors to their house, one in the front and one at the back. The back gave you access to some animals that you had. One day, a Sikh woman burst through the door, severely wounded. A Muslim man had severed her jaw with a barshi. She herself had clearly escaped, but was heavily wounded and covered with blood, losing more and more all the time. Along with her, she had brought an armful of gold with her, as much as she could carry. Eventually she fainted due to the heavy loss of blood. My mom cupped her head in her arms and asked one of my sisters to bring water quickly. When my mom tried to feed her the water, none went in as it kept dripping down the side of her mouth, due to it being severed. Eventually, we heard a Sikh man screaming loudly in search of someone named Sundur Kaur, and it turned out that the woman in our house was her. My mother called the man inside our house and gave him all the gold that Sundur Kaur had brought and sent him on his way. [8]

Sundur Kaur died in Sanam’s household, and it was one of the first examples of the horrific acts of violence occurring during 1947 that she witnessed. Sanam’s narration of events was detailed and she seemed to have a vivid recollection of Kaur, on several occasions stating “mein khud apne samne vekheya” (I saw this in front of my own eyes). [9] Without waiting for me to ask a follow-up question, Sanam had moved on to recalling another memory, this time related to her brother. Sanam described how many Muslims eventually went on to rob Hindus and Sikhs, and occupy abandoned houses and shops. Many stole furniture, gold, kitchen appliances, anything that was deemed valuable. Her own brother, Iftikhar, had stolen two metal chairs, which were very valuable for the time. When her father’s eyes fell upon the chairs and he learnt that they were stolen, “He went inside to speak to my brother. He didn’t do much talking, but instead grabbed a belt te phir changa kutteya, beat him, and told him to return the chairs where he found them." [10]


Sanam’s memories from when she was a five year old girl were told clearly and vividly as if they had just happened. Being the youngest within her own family as the well as the youngest interviewee, it is plausible to assume that the story she was able to retell may have developed over a series of years through a process of storytelling within her own family, and from those siblings older than her.

Sanam sharply remembers the Chauburji Quarters, which are not too far from her current home in Samnabad, Lahore. I imagine that visiting them must bring back memories of her childhood, of a place that was full of diversity, the now covered grounds which were back then full of women doing chores, and the place where her family home once was, and the sight of the first time she witnessed the worst of humanity.

Dostoon ka Bikhar Jana: The First Heartbreak


The next person this essay will discuss is Gurinder Singh, an Indian Partition survivor. Gurinder was born in December 1939 in a small village named Nangli, in present-day Punjab, India. Gurinder’s family was one of the landowners that Fawad referred to, and as such, they were amongst the wealthiest families in their district. They earned their living by selling crops and timber from their farm. Being wealthy allowed Gurinder to avail opportunities that were not available to someone like Fawad, like obtaining an education. Gurinder’s village was diverse and consisted of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims, all of whom lived together. He recalls how people would speak to one another:

There was a sense of camaraderie and community amongst everyone. No one would call each other by their names, no one called me Gurinder. They would have nicknames or simply say, “Hey Guri, come over here”. There was a sweetness in it, a personal touch, and it meant you were close to one another. That is how people used to talk to one another. [11]


Gurinder Singh at his home in

Brampton, Ontario

Due to this sense of camaraderie, Gurinder described how all his neighbours, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds, celebrated holidays like Eid (Muslim holiday), Diwali (Hindu holiday), and Vaisakhi (Sikh holiday). Gurinder further identified Ghulam Nabi and Ali Baksh, two Muslim boys, who were his best childhood friends. He describes their bond as being inseparable, and his friend’s families shared a close relationship with his own. This was until Partition, after which Ghulam and Ali’s families were forced to leave their village, and he could not fathom the loss that he experienced that day. Even seventy-two years later, Gurinder’s eyes teared up remembering the loss of his best friends, as it surely must have in 1947.

When Gurinder was asked to identify reasons as to why Ghulam and Ali might have had to migrate, his answers seemed to be informed by the knowledge he would have gathered throughout his life. It would have been difficult for an eight-year-old boy to understand the complexities of Partition and the reasons behind it. Despite this assumption, Gurinder describes how people in India grew tired of British colonial rule and that an “azadi ki lehar” (wave of freedom) was sweeping the nation, leading to people of different backgrounds coming together under the banner of Hindustan and a demand for independence. [12] Gurinder did not explicate too much about his own opinions regarding this, perhaps because he was too young at the time, but he recalled some of the issues that Muslims were experiencing in India.


Jinnah wanted to become either Prime Minister or President of India because he felt that was the only way that the rights of Muslims could be secured in writ and practice. He was told by the Hindu leaders that this is a tough thing to ask for, why don’t you just set aside this demand and other ideas of separatism and live as one country. Jinnah replied that things have escalated too far and the things you are saying are not pragmatic. Muslims and Hindus in India don’t drink water out of the same wells and can’t be expected to share a country. Though this didn’t happen in my own village, I know it took place in many others where extremist tensions were higher. That is when Jinnah said he wanted a separate country, and that is when the push for Pakistan started. [13]​


It is important to note that at such a young age, a boy in India, and surely others, were witnessing a society divided on the basis of religion. Looking back, Gurinder recalled how “Partition was the worst thing to happen because were no problems amongst the people." [14] He described how having lived in Canada for the last twenty-one years, he sees Indians and Pakistanis living in harmony, and it further confirms his beliefs that Partition should not have happened. He also expressed a bitterness towards politicians in both countries in 1947 and those in 2019 for continuing to divide people on political and religious lines, and failing to create peaceful relations even after all this time.


Events during the Partition experienced by Gurinder and his family engrained those beliefs in their minds and saw them reified through the actions of the villagers in their neighbourhood. Gurinder’s wealthy father was a “Chaudhry” in the village, meaning he was a key decision maker and an elder that people looked to for guidance. When news broke that Pakistan and India were going to become separate countries, many Muslims who lived in the community were visibly threatened by Hindus and Sikhs in neighbouring villages. Gurinder describes how he witnessed neighbours who would celebrate holidays together turn against one another and forget their shared pasts. Gurinder shared with me of some of the scenes from August 1947 that he experienced.

We witnessed several acts of violence. Many Hindus and Sikhs burnt down Muslim houses. They stole the valuable possessions from inside. Took over the farms and even the farm animals. As Muslims tried to escape, sometimes they were stopped and there were acts of sexual violence committed against their women, and they often watched because they were helpless. If they tried to do anything, they were often killed. Eventually the elders in our community raised their voices and said that this was something that should not be done. They told the badmaash (mischievous) people that this was the wrong thing to be doing. [15]

Gurinder’s father having witnessed these acts of violence decided to house Muslims on his property. Gurinder’s family owned a large piece of land and provided refuge to as many Muslims as they could. They took the responsibility of housing, feeding, and protecting the families. He remembers this particularly because it was the children’s responsibility to deliver food at nighttime to the Muslims. Gurinder also describes how they would often have to walk around with schoolbooks or religious texts in case they were questioned where they were going. In this type of environment, Gurinder understood what it meant to feel othered. He also began to understand how members of their own community might perceive his family if it was known that they were hiding “the enemy” in their house.


Historian Pankhuree Dube describes how Partition historiographical themes were preoccupied with causality and focused too much on the accounts of the wealthy classes. Dube highlighted the efforts of women like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, and Kamla Bhasin for not letting “a lack of documentary archival records [from absolving them] from seeking out traces of silences in the past and marking the enforced silences of the present”. [16] These women shifted the focus to violence as their primary site for investigation. They brought it out of the realm of “willed amnesia” that was being imposed on survivors by their community and family.


In this short essay, I have tried to do the same to recover ‘the child’ in South Asian Partition narratives, albeit childhood memories filtered through the prism of adult experience. [17] In sharing these memories and experiences of children who lived through Partition, one has to “always [be] aware that they are an adult's memory of a child's world of events and feelings, recalled decades later." [18] These testimonies and memories would be informed by the experiences of multiple wars fought between India and Pakistan, violent attacks being committed by and against Hindus and Muslims, and the politicization of media. However, despite all this, the three accounts shared here still reminisce about a time of peace, the interviewees remember friendly relations between their friends and neighbours regardless of their religious backgrounds, and they recall the important roles people played in aiding their fellow humans to guide them to safety, even if it was ill advised. These narratives that recall childhood memories also serve as a metaphor of Partition, where an aspect of Partition has been unintentionally silenced and left out from public conservation Therefore, by in contributing these testimonies, one adds another layer to the oral of history on Partition, one that may play a part in bringing peace to South Asia and restoring friendly ties between Pakistanis and Indians, similar to the ones described by the above three survivors. However, time stands in the way a relentless enemy of history, and one that deprived me of many Partition survivors in my own family. Therefore, the stories of survivors that do remain need to be documented, similar to that of the Holocaust survivors, in order to preserve this important piece of South Asian history before it is lost forever.




[1] Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (Rutgers University Press, 1998), 102.

[2] Fawad Khan. "Oral History of Partition with Fawad Khan." Personal Interview. Lahore, Pakistan. April 15, 2019.

[3], [4], [5] Fawad Khan.

[6] Sanam Baloch. "Oral History of Partition with Sanam Baloch." Personal Interview. Lahore, Pakistan. April 14, 2019.

[7], [8], [9], [10] Sanam Baloch.

[11] Gurinder Singh. "Oral History of Partition with Gurinder Singh." Personal Interview. Brampton, Ontario. July 21, 2019.

[12], [13], [14], [15], Gurinder Singh.

[16] Pankhuree R. Dube, “Partition Historiography,” Historian, 77, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 62.

[17] Urvashi Butalia. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2014. 249.

[18] Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan. Growing Up and Away: Narratives of Indian Childhoods: Memory, History, Identity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011, 11.


Aqeel picture.jpg

Aqeel Ihsan is a Ph.D. History Candidate at York University, specializing in Migration and Food History. His research interests focus on the South Asian diaspora currently residing in Canada. His doctoral dissertation seeks to conduct a food history of Toronto by placing ‘smelly cuisines’ at the center and chronologically tracing the history of the most prominent site where South Asian immigrants, beginning in the early 1970s, could purchase and consume South Asian foodstuffs, the Gerrard India Bazaar. Previously however, as part of his Master's thesis, he conducted an oral history of Partition survivors and three of those accounts were shared in the above essay.

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