‘Finally we are together’: partition’s broken families reunite after seven decades | India

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lIt was an embrace that carried pain and longing for 74 years. When Sikka Khan, 75, fell into the arms of his older brother Sadiq Khan, now in his 80s, the couple wept with sadness and joy at the same time. More than seven decades had passed since the brothers, torn by the horrors of the divorce, had seen each other. With Sikka in India and Sadiq in Pakistan, neither knew if the other was alive. Yet neither of them had stopped searching.

But on a crisp January afternoon this year, the couple were reunited along the border that had broken their family so devastatingly. “We’re finally together,” Sadiq said to his brother, tears streaming down his cheeks.

It was 75 years ago, on August 15, 1947, that the subcontinent was divided along religious lines to become two independent countries, India and Pakistan. It would be a bloody and bitter discharge. After 300 years of official British presence, the key figures of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi and his protégé and future Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned a single secular country. Muslim political leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, however, argued for a separate state for Muslims, fearing the consequences of a Hindu majority in India.

As religious tensions mounted, deadly riots broke out targeting Hindus, then Muslims, then Sikhs. Eager to extricate themselves from India quickly, the British oversaw the drawing of a rough border rending the Indian states of Punjab to the west and Bengal to the east, to form a disjointed Pakistan that infuriated all communities.

A visitor to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, India, studies a photo of crowds during the 1947 partition. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

It was the impetus for a mutual genocide on both sides of the new border. Whole villages were set on fire, children were slaughtered and an estimated 75,000 women were raped. In Punjab, the center of the violence, pregnant women had babies cut from their bellies and trains full of refugees – Muslims fleeing Indian Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus fleeing West Pakistan – were ambushed and arrived at stations full of silent, bloody corpses.

The actual death toll is still unknown, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 2 million, and it resulted in the largest forced migration in history as more than 14 million people fled their homes. From then on, India and Pakistan were sworn enemies, separated by a border that would become increasingly erratic and impenetrable over the decades.

Sikka Khan with a photo of his brother Sadiq.
Sikka Khan with a photo of his brother Sadiq. Photo: Hannah Ellis-Petersen/The Guardian

Families caught up in the chaos and brutality were forced to leave everything behind and many were separated when they entered India or Pakistan. Although many later tried desperately to find each other, through newspaper advertisements, letters and bulletin boards, cross-border communication was limited. Visa restrictions and a deep-seated fear of the “other side” also prevented most from ever going back across the border.

But lately, social media has opened up a world of new possibilities. Facebook pages and YouTube channels, some with thousands of members from India and Pakistan, have begun to reconnect people with the homes and relatives lost during the partition and resulting conflict that also divided Kashmir.

Video reports and information fragments are placed on the pages: a photo or name, a village or a description of a house. Because the posts are widely shared by people on both sides of the border, and by the diaspora around the world, they sometimes come up with leads. While it is still a challenge to get a visa to cross the border, video calls have been arranged so that people can see the homes and villages they were forced to leave behind so long ago.

Sadiq talks to Sikka via video call
Sadiq Khan (on screen) speaks with his younger brother Sikka (right) via video call. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

“For those who lived through the partition, that longing for their origin remains very strong,” said Aanchal Malhotra, an author who has documented the oral history of partition for years.

“One of the most common things I hear in my research is ‘If I close my eyes, I see my house’ or ‘Every night in my dreams, I cross the border.’ Most people have resigned themselves to never seeing their home again. But the great power of social media is that it is limitless and it is wonderful to see how it has been used in India, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh to connect people to a past they thought they had lost.”

Makhu Devi, 87, who lives in Indian-controlled Kashmir, said she was given a new lease of life after a Facebook group recently put her in touch with relatives who still live in her old village, now in Pakistan, that she had to flee. They now have regular phone calls, although the first times everyone barely spoke because they cried too loudly. “My memory is being refreshed,” Devi said of the phone calls. “I am taken back to that time. I feel just as young and energetic as I did then.”

Makhu Devi, 87, talking to her family in Pakistan.
Makhu Devi, 87, talking to her family in Pakistan. Photo: Aakash Hassan

The second and third generations have also embraced social media groups, connecting with an ancestors often left untouched in families amid a ubiquitous culture of silence surrounding separation. Cross-border communication lines have been opened up in innovative ways, including through dating apps. On Instagram, it has become common for people to search for hashtags of the cities or towns their grandparents came from to see what they look like now and find people who still live there.

Muhammad Naveed at his computer
Muhammad Naveed, a team member of Pakistani YouTuber Nasir Dhillon’s Punjabi Lehar channel. Photo: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty

Punjabi Lehar, a YouTube channel set up by Nasir Dhillon, 38, a real estate dealer from Faisalabad Punjab in Pakistan, has produced about 800 videos to help people reconnect with a person or place lost in a partition. According to his estimates, 300 have led to personal reunions between loved ones separated by the India-Pakistan border.

Dhillon grew up hearing his family and village elders talk longingly about the ancestral villages they could no longer visit, and he started using social media to share their stories and gather information. But after his posts and videos went viral, “the response was so overwhelming that I realized this is the story of the entire Punjab”.

“Whatever I do comes from my roots,” Dhillon said. “We may live in two hostile countries, but our hearts are still in pre-partition time. I pray there is no such dividing wall anywhere in the world – it is cruel.”

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His biggest regret is that he was unable to take his father, who died in 2018, to their ancestral family shrine in India, which he eventually managed to locate thanks to social media. “Until the last days, he longed to see his native village,” Dhillon said. He has not yet been able to visit it; last year India rejected his visa application.

It was thanks to the Dhillon Canal that the Khan brothers found each other again. Born to a Muslim family in what is now Indian Punjab, Sikka was only six months old when divorce broke out. Away from home with his mother, they were forced to take shelter with a local Sikh family who were protecting their Muslim neighbors from the massacres.

After weeks of carnage, they emerged, but to terrible scenes. The nearby river was so filled with bodies that it ran red with blood. And in Sikka’s native village of Jagraon, 40 miles away, there were no more Muslims; no trace of Sikka’s father, his 10-year-old brother or 8-year-old sister. Sikka’s mother, consumed with grief, drowned herself. Sikka had no family except a poor uncle, and was raised by a Sikh family from his mother’s village.

He spent his entire adult life looking for news about his family, especially his beloved brother Sadiq. He made speculative phone calls and wrote hundreds of letters to vague addresses in Pakistan to no avail. He never married; with no family around him, he said, “something was always missing, so it never felt right”.

Sikka Khan on his phone
Sikka Khan (center) talks to his older brother Sadiq in Pakistan via a video call on a mobile phone. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

In 2019, a friend from the village was accidentally sent a YouTube video of Punjabi Lehar by a relative. In it, an old man in his eighties living in Pakistan spoke about his efforts to find the younger brother he had lost after fleeing the village of Jagraon during the partition. After contacting Dhillon, it was confirmed that this man was Sadiq Khan.

An emotional video call was arranged between the two brothers and soon they were talking every day. Sikka finally learned his family’s story; that his father had been murdered in a communal attack and that his brother and sister had fled to a border refugee camp where his sister had died of illness. Sadiq reached Pakistan, settled in Faisalabad and had six children and several grandchildren, but not a day went by that he did not think of his lost brother.

The brothers were unable to meet for nearly three years due to visa issues and the Covid pandemic, but a reunion was finally organized in January in the Kartarpur corridor, a religious pilgrimage site recently opened to Indians and Pakistanis. “I felt complete,” Sikka said of the meeting. Both brothers agreed: they had lived so long to meet again.

In April, Sikka finally got a visa to stay in Pakistan for three months, and Sadiq then returned to India with him for two months. They hope to see each other again soon; Sadiq continues to tease Sikka that if he returns to Pakistan, he will finally find him a wife.

“Now I don’t worry about anything,” said Sikka. “I just want to see my brother and stay close to him.” But, Sikka added, he was angry too. “Why did they divide this land, divide my family? There are still so many people who have not found their families or have not received visas to cross the border. I was the lucky one.”


The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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