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Pakistan at 70: ‘Midnight’s children’ recall the bloodshed and chaos of partition

This combination of file photos show Pakistan Police Superintendent Aftab Hussain (left frame), and Hussain's son meeting President General Zia ul Haq.

ISLAMABAD: In the summer of 1947, hasty decisions executed with the stroke of a pen divided a nation. The British Raj, the 89-year rule of the British Crown over the South Asian subcontinent, was over.
Independence split people on sectarian lines. Harmony died and violence was rampant. Friend became foe. Hope turned to despair. An abrupt and massive exodus displaced about 12 million people. Born from the ashes and spilled blood of their people, two countries — the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of India — this week commemorate 70 years of freedom.
The history of the partition has been written, read and debated. But those alive today who witnessed and experienced the chaos of that time, and the arduous journeys they undertook, tell a story that no dry historical account can match.
Muhammad Ansari, a Pakistani businessman of Indian lineage, has fragmented memories of a “past best left forgotten.” He was less than a year old when his family travelled from their home in Jodhpur in the northwest Indian province of Rajasthan to Sanghar in the Sindh district of what became Pakistan, to purchase cheap land.
“My father received news of the partition and immediately attempted to return with the family, but the situation was life-threatening and difficult. I was too young to comprehend what was happening around me,” Ansari says.
The family of six had been financially stable. They owned two houses and a manor, and ran a hotel in Jodhpur. After the first Indo-Pak war in 1948, the Ansaris returned to Rajasthan in 1952. Their properties were by then occupied by Indians who refused them access, and all their assets had been confiscated by the local authorities. They were unable to retrieve any of their belongings and the streets were red with religious and sectarian bloodshed. A relative provided refuge “or else we would have been slaughtered.” Returning to Pakistan proved equally difficult. “Sikhs were murdering Muslims. They used short swords and hacked people traveling on the train. A train conductor of North West Railways hid us in a compartment and saved our lives. Sikhs leaving Pakistan boarded trains carrying hundreds of Muslim migrants and killed them.” The family’s ordeal had just begun. Back in Pakistan, they went to see a “Settlement Officer.” This, Ansari says, is where the seeds of corruption in Pakistan were first sown. “Since the entire governance system was in disarray and there was no supervision, educated officers decided compensation or settlements as they wished, taking large chunks of land from people and distributing it to migrants in under-the-table deals.
“This practice of corruption continued — spreading and plaguing the country.” After much trouble, in compensation for the loss of their properties in India, the family were allocated a two-bedroom house that was illegally occupied by someone else. After a long legal dispute, they settled for only one bedroom. To survive financially, Ansari’s father set up a makeshift restaurant to serve the influx of migrants arriving from India.
Unlike the Ansaris, other families opted for Pakistan much later.
Aftab Hussain was born in the northern Indian city of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, one of four children. He was about two years old at the time of partition. His father, a police superintendent and recipient of a gallantry award from the British Crown, “felt migration was too risky,” he said. Instead he focused on helping Muslims who felt insecure.
As time passed, his duty turned toward providing justice. Hindus and Sikhs alike were predators. For them, Muslims were the enemies who had divided “Mother India.” "The situation went from worse to far worse for us,” Hussein said. “My father was targeted. Instead of promotion, he was demoted, and forced to take early retirement. He saved many mosques from demolition at the hands of Hindus who claimed falsely that the places of worship had been built on sacred Hindu ground. He provided a sense of security to Muslims who were pondering when and if to leave for Pakistan.” It took Hussain’s father more than than a year to be reinstated as a police officer, and eventually various factors persuaded him to move to Pakistan.
“Close relations started to migrate and left us with a feeling of isolation,” Hussain said. “Then my sister got married in Pakistan. I had the opportunity to go to the United States but I opted for Pakistan. I was losing my language, Urdu, and was being forced to read and write Sanskrit.” He said he “needed a homeland” and an identity. “The issue was more of a cultural problem, feelings of insecurity, and being marginalized.
The hatred for Muslims was nauseating, scary, and the bullying of Muslims around me was growing.” Hussain renounced his Indian citizenship in 1967. A mechanical engineer who graduated from Agra Engineering College, he sought work in West Pakistan, a place he could relate to and call his own.
Pakistan was recovering from the wounds of its second war with India in 1965 and there was a shortage of engineers. “It was an opportunity for me to obtain a job.” Partition has left a bitter taste for both nations, shrouded in suspicion, hostility, and anxiety. They have fought four wars and are still embroiled in myriad disputes, not least over Kashmir. The talk and shoot approach has yielded no result other than an endless race to develop weapons of mass destruction.
“The only force keeping Pakistan alive is the military,” said Ammar Hyder, a second-generation Pakistani. “We are celebrating 70 years of existence, but no thanks to our civil leadership, which has looted, plundered and corrupted the country and divided us by ethnicity and sect. We celebrate with all due respect to our army, which has safeguarded our nation from enemies foreign and domestic.”