Home Muslim culture ‘Finally We’re Together’: Broken Score Families Reunite After Seven Decades | India

‘Finally We’re Together’: Broken Score Families Reunite After Seven Decades | India

0

IIt was an embrace that held 74 years of pain and longing. As Sikka Khan, 75, fell into the arms of her older brother Sadiq Khan, now 80, the couple wept with sadness and joy simultaneously. More than seven decades had passed since the brothers, torn apart by the horrors of the partition, had seen each other again. With Sikka in India and Sadiq in Pakistan, neither knew if the other was alive. Yet both had never stopped searching.

But on a chilly January afternoon this year, the couple found themselves walking along the border that had so severely fractured their family. “Finally we are together,” Sadiq told his brother, tears streaming down his face.

75 years ago, on August 15, 1947, the subcontinent was split along religious lines to become two independent countries, India and Pakistan. It was to be a bloody and bitter sharing. After 300 years of official British presence, the key figures of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi and his protege 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 implications of a Hindu-majority India.

As religious tensions escalate, deadly riots break out, targeting Hindus, then Muslims, then Sikhs. The British, eager to extricate themselves quickly from India, oversaw the drawing of a crude border that severed the Indian states of Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east, to form a disjointed Pakistan that provoked the anger of all communities.

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

He caused mutual genocide on both sides of the new border. Whole villages were burnt down, children were massacred and around 75,000 women were raped. In Punjab, the center of the violence, pregnant women had babies severed from their wombs and trains full of refugees – Muslims fleeing Indian Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus fleeing western Pakistan – were ambushed and arrived at stations filled with silent bloody corpses.

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

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

Families caught in the chaos and brutality have been forced to leave everything behind and many have been separated while crossing India or Pakistan. Although many tried desperately to find each other later, via newspaper advertisements, letters and messages on billboards, cross-border communication was limited. Visa restrictions and a deep-rooted fear of the “other side” have also prevented most from returning across the border.

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

Video testimonials and fragments of information are posted on the pages: a photo or a name, a village, or the description of a house. As the messages are widely shared by people on both sides of the border and by the diaspora around the world, they sometimes reveal leads. Although getting a visa to cross the border remains a challenge, video calls have been made so people can see the homes and villages they were forced to leave so long ago.

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

“For those who lived through the partition, this longing for their origins remains very strong,” said Aanchal Malhotra, an author who has spent years documenting the oral history of the partition.

“One of the most common things I hear in my research is ‘When I close my eyes, I see my house’ or ‘Every night in my dreams, I cross the border.’ Most people have come to terms with the fact that they will never see their home again.But the great power of social media is that it has no borders and it is beautiful 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 new life after a Facebook group recently connected her with relatives still living in her former village, now in Pakistan, that she was forced to flee. . They now have regular phone calls, although the first few times everyone barely spoke because they were crying too hard. “My memory is refreshed,” Devi said of the calls. “I’m taken back to that time. I feel as young and energetic as I did then.

Makhu Devi, 87, on a call with his family in Pakistan.
Makhu Devi, 87, on a call with his family in Pakistan. Photography: Aakash Hassan

The second and third generations have also embraced social media groups, to connect with ancestry that often goes undiscussed in families amid a pervasive culture of silence around partition. Cross-border lines of communication have been opened up in innovative ways, including through dating apps. On Instagram, it has become common for people to search the hashtags of cities or towns where their grandparents were from to see what they look like now and find people who still live there.

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

Punjabi Lehar, a YouTube channel created by Nasir Dhillon, 38, a real estate agent from Faisalabad Punjab in Pakistan, has made around 800 videos helping people reconnect with a person or place lost in the score. He estimates that 300 have led to in-person reunions between loved ones separated by the Indo-Pakistan border.

Dhillon grew up hearing his family and village elders speak enviously of the ancestral villages they could no longer visit, and he began to use social media to share their stories and gather information. But after his posts and videos started going viral, “the response was so overwhelming that I realized this was the story of all of Punjab.”

“Everything I do is because of my roots,” Dhillon said. “We may live in two hostile countries, but our hearts are still in pre-partition time. I pray there will never be a score like this in the world – it’s a cruel thing.

Sign up for First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

His biggest regret is not being able to take his father, who died in 2018, to their ancestral family shrine in India, which he eventually managed to locate through social media. “He looked forward to seeing his native village until the last days,” Dhillon said. He hasn’t been able to visit it yet either; last year, India rejected his visa application.

It was thanks to Dhillon’s chain that the Khan brothers found each other. Sikka, who was born to a Muslim family in what is now Indian Punjab, was just six months old when the partition violence erupted. Far from home with his mother, they were forced to take refuge with a local Sikh family who protected their Muslim neighbors from massacres.

After weeks of carnage, they emerged, but to terrible scenes. The nearby river was so full of bodies that it was 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, 10-year-old brother or eight-year-old sister. Sikka’s grief-stricken mother drowned. Sikka was left with no family except for a penniless uncle and was raised by a Sikh family from his mother’s village.

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

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

It was by chance in 2019 that a friend from the village received a YouTube video of Punjabi Lehar from a relative. In it, an 80-year-old man living in Pakistan recounts trying to find the younger brother he lost after fleeing the village of Jagraon during the partition. After Dhillon was contacted, it was confirmed that this man was Sadiq Khan.

A moving video call was arranged between the two brothers, and soon they were talking to each other every day. Sikka eventually learned of her family’s history; that her father had been murdered in a communal attack and that her brother and sister had fled to a border refugee camp where her sister had died of illness. Sadiq arrived in Pakistan, settled in Faisalabad and had six children and several grandchildren, but never a day went by that he didn’t think of his missing brother.

The brothers were prevented from meeting for nearly three years thanks to visa issues and the Covid pandemic, but in January a meeting was finally arranged at Kartarpur Corridor, a religious shrine recently opened to Indians and Pakistanis. “I felt complete,” Sikka said of the encounter. The two brothers agreed: they had lived so long to be able to see each other again.

In April, Sikka was finally granted a visa to stay in Pakistan for three months, and Sadiq then returned with him to India for two months. They hope to meet 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,” Sikka said. “I just want to see my brother and stay close to him.” But, Sikka added, he was also angry. “Why did they divide this country, divide my family? There are still so many people who have not been reunited with their families or who have not obtained the visa to cross the border. I was the lucky one.