The day the Great Army split: When Hindus and Muslims were one
It’s hard to imagine that the brave soldiers of the India and Pakistan army who have been baying for each other’s blood since 1947 had earlier been comrades; that they are the same young men who once spilled their blood together in many a battle they fought flanked by their brothers and in the course of World War II in Italy, the Western Desert and Burma.
These are the same brave-hearts who fought together almost incessantly along the passes and peaks of the Frontier, at Landi Kotal, and up and down the Khyber while their British colleagues paraded and drilled. The Pathans like the cruel Wazirs and Mahsouds, who finished off their wounded prisoners with their knives, were not an easy enemy to deal with.
It’s difficult to fathom that these are the same doughty soldiers who, once on a leave after their gruelling Frontier campaigns, led their life with style and panache back in their quarters. They went off together to hunt panthers and tigers in the jungles of Central India, the snow leopard, ibex and black bear in the foothills of the Himalayas and they fished the tenacious mahseer from the quick-flowing streams of Kashmir.
These were the same chaps, who once upon a time, enjoyed each other’s success. Alas, so much has changed since partition; three wars, thousands of soldiers martyred, incessant skirmishes at the Line of Control (LoC), beheadings and what not.
Today, a brother is fighting against his own brother and spilling his blood at will; all those great years of brotherhood and friendship they shared together have been conveniently forgotten just because 66 years ago our ‘great’ leaders thought it fit to separate us.
But brothers will always remain brothers no matter how much they fight amongst each other.
Today, as I write this blog, my mind dwells upon the last moments the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh soldiers of the British Indian army shared together on the eve of partition. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins in their book ‘Freedom at Midnight’ offer a poignant account of the moving farewell these comrades bid to each other.
On August 13, 1947, the authors write, in barracks, cantonments and along military lines, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim soldiers of the great army, being sliced in two along with the sub-continent it had served, paid a last homage to one another.
In Delhi, the troops of the Sikh and Dogra squadrons of Probyn’s Horse, one of the army’s legendary old cavalry regiments, offered a gigantic banquet to the men of the departing Muslim squadron. They savoured together on an open parade ground a final feast of mountains of steaming rice, chicken curry, lamb kebab and the regiment’s traditional pudding, rice baked with caramel, cinnamon and almonds. When it was over, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu joined hands and danced a last bhangra, a wild, swirling farandole climaxing the most moving evening in their regiment’s history.
According to the authors, the Muslim regiments in the areas which would fall to Pakistan, offered similar banquets to their Sikh and Hindu comrades leaving for India. In Rawalpindi, the Second Cavalry gave an enormous barkana, a ‘good luck’ banquet to their former comrades. Every Sikh and Hindu officer spoke, often with tears in his eyes, to bid farewell to the Muslim colonel, Mohammed Idriss, who’d led them through some of the bitterest fighting of World War II.
“Wherever you go,” said Idriss in reply, “We shall always remain brothers because we spilled our blood together.”
Idriss then cancelled the order he’d received from the headquarters of the future Pakistan Army insisting that all departing Indian troops turn in their weapons before leaving.
“These men are soldiers,” he said, “They came here with their arms. They will leave with them.”
The next morning those soldiers who’d served under his command owed their lives to his last intervention on their behalf. An hour out of Rawalpindi, the train bearing the Sikhs and Hindus of the Second Cavalry was ambushed by Muslim League National Guardsmen. Without their arms they would have been massacred.
The most touching farewell of all, as per the authors, took place on the lawns and in the grand ballroom of an institution that once had been one of the most privileged sanctuaries of India’s British rulers, the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club. Invitation was by engraved cards sent by ‘The Officers of the Armed Forces of the Dominion of India’ inviting guests to a ‘Farewell to Old Comrades Reception in Honour of the Officers of the Armed Forces of the Dominion of Pakistan.’
An air of overwhelming sadness and unreality overlaid the evening, one Indian remembered. They talked and drank in the bar, telling the old stories one last time – the stories of the mess, of the desert, of the jungles of Burma, of the raids against their own countrymen on the frontier, the ordeals and pleasures of entire careers spent together in that special fraternity of the uniform and shared danger.
None of those men, the authors write, could envisage on that nostalgic evening the tragic role into which they would soon be cast. Instead, it was arms around each other’s shoulders and boisterous cries of:
“We’ll be down for pig-sticking in September”
“Don’t forget the polo in Lahore”
“We must go after that ibex we missed in Kashmir last year”.
When the time came to end the evening, Brigadier Cariappa, a Hindu, climbed to the raised dance platform and called for silence.
“We are here to say au revoir and only au revoir, because we shall meet again in the same spirit of friendship that has always bound us together,” he said. “We have shared a common destiny so long that our history is inseparable.”
He reviewed their experience together, and then concluded:
“We have been brothers. We will always remain brothers. And we shall never forget the great years we have lived together.”
Yes, we won’t forget and no matter what happens we will always remain brothers. That day is not far when we shall meet again in the same spirit of friendship that has always bound us together.
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