No memorial honours the victims of India’s partition: Mariam S. Pal

Published: August 8, 2013
Mariam S. Pal

Mariam S. Pal is an economist and former member of the federal Immigration and Refugee Board. She lives in Notre Dame de Grace.


MONTREAL — It was during this second week in August in 1947, now a full 66 years ago, that my father and his family became refugees.

On Aug. 9, they ran for their lives, abandoning their home in Amritsar, soon to be in India, for Lahore, which became part of the new country of Pakistan just a few days after they arrived.

In the middle of a blistering monsoon, during the month of Ramadan, more than 12 million people moved between India and Pakistan in an atmosphere of chaos, violence and brutality.

Growing up in Canada, I learned about partition from my father. Yet I felt there was a lot I did not know. So I wrote an essay about my family’s partition experience and showed it to my father. He told me there were gaps because he had never told me what really happened.

Sitting at the kitchen table one day, he finally filled in those gaps.

Muslims, my family had lived in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar for generations. The Pals were carpet sellers and weavers who had joined British India’s educated class in the early 1900s. My grandfather was a lawyer and an Arabic scholar. The family owned property and were active in Amritsar’s community life. My grandfather wanted to stay in Amritsar after partition. But this was not to be.

By June 1947, rioting had erupted in Amritsar between Sikhs and Muslims. In the Muslim neighbourhood where my family lived, gangs of Muslim vigilantes demanded protection money. Roving gangs attacked trains between Amritsar and Lahore, murdering or maiming Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Trainloads of bloody corpses arrived daily in Lahore and Amritsar.

“A Present from India” or “A Present from Pakistan” would be written in chalk on the carriages.

As the violence escalated, my grandfather decided the family had to be ready to flee to Lahore, just 20 miles away, soon to be part of Pakistan. My father, already studying in Lahore, rented a house. One of my uncles travelled to Lahore with cooking pots and bags of rice and lentils inside of which my grandmother’s jewelry was buried, thus ensuring a supply of food and money for the family if forced to relocate.

On Aug. 8, a Sikh family friend advised my family to leave within 24 hours. The next day, this same Sikh man drove eight veiled female members of my family to Amritsar station in a hearse. My father and his brothers met the women at the station. My grandfather and great-uncles were to join them in Lahore in a day or two. Taking only what they could carry, my family boarded the train to Lahore. They brought no food, just some water. My grandfather’s library, clothes, furniture, the detritus of family life was left behind. As the train made its hot and dusty way to Lahore, usually a 35-minute trip, my family sat silently on Third Class benches. My grandmother clutched a sack containing a samovar and some pots. Today, they are in my father’s living room.

Two hours later, my family reached Lahore. That evening they learned that theirs had been the only train from Amritsar to Lahore not attacked that day. My father went to the Lahore railway station, looking for his father and uncles. Trains arrived laden with bloody corpses, rotting in the monsoon heat. Several days later my grandfather and his brothers finally showed up at the rented house. The Pals were lucky — and safe.

My family never returned to Amritsar. Their home was ransacked and burned by Muslim goondas (thugs). Many friends were dead. My family rebuilt their lives in Lahore; they were given a house and my grandfather re-established his law practice. Having survived partition, my father nearly died from cholera in 1948. In 1955, my father left Pakistan for Canada, where he has lived for 58 years.

More than 500,000 people died due to partition: there were forced religious conversions, rapes, kidnappings and mutilations. Today we would call it ethnic cleansing. The retreating British failed to predict the massive migration unleashed by partition. The new governments of India and Pakistan were woefully unprepared to deal with the situation. Those who killed, maimed, kidnapped and stole never faced justice. No memorial honours partition’s victims.

Though born and raised in Canada, partition is my history, as it is for millions in the South Asian diaspora. The Pals survived; yet they lost their house, their land, their ancestors’ graves and part of their heritage in what we now know was one of the largest migrations of the modern era.

Although 66 years have passed, partition must not be forgotten.

Mariam S. Pal is an economist and former member of the federal Immigration and Refugee Board. She lives in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

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