Flames of Fire: Our Saviour

Partition photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White in 1947 for Time Magazine [Courtesy Life magazine]

By Tarlochan Singh (Ex-MP) | Experience | Partition |

The Muslim League gave a call for direct action to press for their demand for a separate homeland in the first week of March 1947. This was a very clever move to put pressure on the British government to agree to the division of India on a communal basis. The call for direct action emboldened the Muslims in areas where they had a majority. The population of Hindus and Sikhs in the Rawalpindi division and North West Frontier Province was less than 10%. Soon after the call for direct action, Muslims in every village where they had a majority started taking out processions and threatening the Hindus and the Sikhs. Trouble started in Lahore on 7th March when at various places many Sikhs were fatally stabbed. This was a warning signal and a precursor to worse outbreaks. Attacks by Muslim mobs started in Rawalpindi and other places also.

My village Dhudial was located on the Mundra Bhaun railway line and it was a known Sikh village in district Jhelum. Our village had a Khalsa High School, a middle girls school and four gurdwaras. The Sikhs were traders and most of them had families in Iran. The community was very rich and three-storey buildings were a common sight. When the elders of our community received the news of the attack on the Sikhs they prepared a defence plan to stop the entry of outsiders. All the houses were connected with each other through wooden planks placed on the roofs. Every  household was told to keep burning oil in cauldrons, bags of red chilli powder and a stock of stones. Teams of young men were deputed to go around the village round the clock and keep watch. Two persons with 12 bore guns were appointed on guard at pivotal points. On 11th March, the Muslim crowd tried to enter the village for the first time but it was beaten back. The next day, the Muslims came to attack us, better armed, and in larger numbers. We were no match for them in numbers but what we lacked in numbers, we made up in courage. Our group was led by one of my uncles, Bhagat Singh Kohli. We had to engage them in a hand to hand fight on the outskirts of the village. It was a bloody skirmish but we did not lose heart. I was a witness to this fight and I shall never forget the horrific sight till my dying day. We suffered casualties but more than 10 Muslims were killed. The Muslim retreated that day but returned with an even bigger force on 13th March and succeeded in setting a large number of houses on fire. The fire spread in the entire area and burnt the houses like matchsticks. All the villagers were forced to seek refuge in the gurdwara Santpura, and then later in the evening, to Sunder Singh Kothi across the railway line. The huge mansion accommodated all of us who were seeking shelter. We sat there, watching the Muslim crowd advancing towards the kothi with burning torches.

It was a miracle that somewhere around midnight an army convoy, led by a British Major, arrived at the village. They had been alerted when they had seen flames of fire licking the sky as they had been on their way. So, ironically, the act of arson that had set our homes on fire and forced us to flee also acted as a distress signal and an SOS for help that could be seen by our rescuers. Had the army unit not reached the spot when it did, it would have meant certain death for us. Upon arrival, the army unit immediately surrounded the kothi and the Muslim crowd was forced to beat a retreat and run away. An army officer took my father, Balwant Singh Kohli, and Natha Singh Anand to locate the godowns where the food grains were stored in order to feed the victims. The next day a camp was opened in the gurdwara and hundreds of Sikhs from other villages were also given shelter. The main bazaar and the houses around the gurdwara were saved but the rest of the village was completely burnt down. After two days, Bhimsen Sacchar and Swarn Singh visited our village and were highly appreciative of the bravery of  our youth and the way we had repelled the Muslim attack again and again.  

Master Tara Singh issued a statement requesting all the Hindus and Sikhs of our area to shift to Patiala and other places. We heard an announcement made by Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala offering shelter to all our people. We decided to leave for Patiala. But at that time, my father and his senior colleagues were of the opinion that this migration was temporary and we would come back after India attained independence and the violence abated.

We, a family of five members, with only Rupees 300/- in our pockets, reached Rajpura by train. From there we travelled on a horse tonga to Bahadurgarh gurdwara where about 100 of us  took shelter for the next few months. I volunteered myself as a child labourer and earned money by delivering large milk cans to Bahadurgarh Fort, where a camp for the Muslims refugees from Patiala had been set up. Later on I joined Khalsa High School, Patiala and cleared my matriculation exams in March 1949 with good marks. I got admission in Mahendra College, Patiala and earned a scholarship which proved to be a real boon. I completed my MA in Economics in 1955 from Punjab University. Gradually, I was able to settle down. Till date, I remember the two chairs and a table for my house that I first purchased.

Other people from my village also struggled hard and ultimately rose from the ashes. My school mates,  Kuldip Singh became a Judge of Supreme Court, Baldev Singh Anand became Secretary of the Government of India, Kulwant Singh Sabharwal was Chief Secretary of Haryana, P.S. Kohli was Army Commander Shimla, and our Headmaster Hira Singh’s son R.S. Talwar became the Chief Secretary of Punjab and Chairman of the Tribune Newspaper Trust, while the son of another student in our school, Vikramjit Singh Sahney, is a new Member of the Parliament; he is the President of World Punjabi Organisation. I, too, received the privilege to be a Member of the Indian Parliament and Chairman, National Minorities Commission with Union Cabinet Minister status. In business also our people established their names, for example, Mann Singh Chandhok and Sohan Singh Anand as the ‘Tire Kings’ in India. Ponty Chadha and his brother Dr. Rajinder Singh Chadha are known donors. We have a Dhudial Higher Secondary School at Patiala as well as Akal Dhudial Academy. There is also a residential colony in Pitampura, Delhi called Dhudial Apartments.

I was able to visit my native village with my wife who was born in Lyallpur. It was a very sad experience to see that Dhudial has lost all its sheen. The high school is now a middle school. All the impressive buildings that used to be so splendid are now in shambles. Memories of those terrifying days still makes us shudder but we are thankful to God and His benevolence that rescued us from the jaws of death.

Tarlochan Singh is a former Indian MP and chairman of the National Commission for Minorities from 2003 to 2006.


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