Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

A Necessary Journey: A Story of Friendship and Reconciliation

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

A Necessary Journey: A Story of Friendship and Reconciliation

Article excerpt

In the year 2000, fifty-two years after Partition and fifty-four years after he had left, Bir Bahadur Singh, a Sikh survivor of Partition, returned to his home village of Saintha in Rawalpindi district, Pakistan. I accompanied him on this visit. In this article, I tell the story of Bir Bahadur's journey home, and what it meant to him. I believe that this journey--and other such journeys--allow us a way of looking at the experience of Partition, at how it is remembered, and how it is filtered through the memories of those who lived through that time.

In the wake of the kind of explorations of "alternative" (for example feminist, people-centered) histories of Partition that have taken place in recent years, some scholars have asserted that the exploration of such traumatic events through oral narrative, the testimonies of those who lived through such violence, is best left alone and not "raked up again." I am not particularly concerned with scholarly anxiety about whether a certain subject is fit or otherwise for study. Such concern will not stop "return journeys" like Bir Bahadur's, and it is important, both for scholarship and action, that we try to understand why these journeys are so important to the people who make them, and what their wider ramifications can be.

Bir Bahadur Singh is one of a community of Sikhs from different villages in Rawalpindi district--Thoa Khalsa, Doberan, Thamali, Nara, and others--that came under attack from Muslims in March 1947. These attacks were said to be in retaliation for Hindu attacks on Muslims in Noakhali, in eastern India. Bir Bahadur's family--his father, Sant Raja Singh, was owner of a provision shop and acted as a sort of bank/moneylender--had lived for many years in a small village called Saintha, where theirs was the only non-Muslim family. In 1945, as rumors about the possibility of Partition began to fill the air, and tensions began to mount, Bir Bahadur's father decided to move the family to a nearby village, Thoa Khalsa, where Sikhs formed the majority. Safety--and that is the word Bir Bahadur used in describing it to me--he felt lay in numbers.

Ironically, and tragically, it was in Thoa Khalsa that the violence took place. A number of villages were attacked in March 1947, and there was large-scale violence, arson, looting, murder, and rape. Thoa Khalsa was among those villages that saw the worst of this violence. Interestingly, and importantly, the violence was not random. It was preceded by negotiations between the two communities--safety was offered in return for money and weapons. According to the survivors, despite the fact that this "fee" was paid, the attacks still took place. Once the villagers realized that there was no escaping attack, the village elders--mostly men--got together to decide how best to offer a defense.

Bir Bahadur remembers that it was at this time that the villagers of Saintha, led by the headman, Sajawal Khan, came to offer shelter and protection to his family. But such was the atmosphere of fear and suspicion, that Bir Bahadur's father, Sant Raja Singh, refused. He did not trust the Muslims any longer. Here is how Bir Bahadur described the incident when I spoke to him:

We came away from there [Saintha] honorably. And when the trouble started, the people came from there. You know, that Ma Hasina whom I mentioned to you, her son Sajawal Khan, he came to us and said we could stay at his house, if we wanted to. He came with his children. But we were doubtful, and today I feel that what he was saying, the expression on his face, his bearing--there was nothing there but sincerity and compassion and we, we misunderstood him. We had all been through so much trouble, and they came to give us support, to help us, and we refused.

This rejection stayed with Bir Bahadur for many long years.

The village elders also took a collective decision--that, at least. …

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