From Delhi, with regret: How a postcard from India revived painful, unhealed memories of the Partition

Published: December 9, 2018

The letter is an expression of the regret and grief that many felt at having to leave their homelands unwillingly. PHOTO: HAMZA SHAD

From history textbooks and family accounts, we often hear about the intense emotions and trauma felt by those who were forced to leave their homes behind for a new country during the Partition of British India in 1947.

These days, it is hard to truly understand those feelings when we are so far removed from the experience itself. But tangible, everyday artefacts from that era – like a simple letter exchanged between separated friends – can suddenly resurrect those devastating and unhealed memories.

That’s precisely what happened when my mother was recently looking through old papers in my grandparents’ home in Lahore and rediscovered a letter addressed to my great-grandfather Mohammad Ali Mirza. It was from his friend Diwan C Khanna, who had to leave Lahore with his family due to the uncertainty, fear and violence at the time of Partition. His short letter to my great-grandfather expresses gratitude for the latter’s help in arranging for his safe travel to Delhi and deep anguish for having to leave his motherland.

The entire text of the brief document, dated October 17, 1947, is as follows:

My dear Mirza sahib,

I arrived here safely this morning. I can’t thank you sufficiently for all you so willingly and gladly did for me. The part which Begum Sahiba played was noble. You have proved what friendship is. I shall ever remain grateful. Please convey my thanks to Begum Sahiba. I am unhappy to be separated from you and other friends. I would like to die in Pakistan than to live in India shall it be possible. My wife and children have been happy to receive me. They were worrying a lot. I had a troublesome journey and that too by stages. Anyhow I reached here with some luggage, arms and one bedding. The rest of the things are at Amritsar which I shall manage to get soon.

With sincere thanks yours sly (sincerely)

Diwan C Khanna

The part of the letter that struck me most was:

“I am unhappy to be separated from you and other friends. I would like to die in Pakistan than to live in India shall it be possible.”

The love this man had for his homeland – despite the political circumstances that made him abandon it – was so great that he would have preferred to die there than to continue living in what was a foreign land to him, Delhi.

Concrete primary evidence, like this letter, shows the strong ties of friendship that existed between different religious communities in pre-independence South Asia. Cities like Lahore and Delhi were very communally diverse in the early 20th century, but were unfortunately homogenised during Partition due to widespread anti-minority violence in both Pakistan and India as the British left.

Khanna’s letter to my great-grandfather is an expression of the regret and grief that many felt at having to leave their homelands unwillingly. Many were comfortable where they were – even if the structure of the governing polity was changing – but were coerced into fleeing due to violence or the threat of it.

Because of the massive migration that took place between India and Pakistan, there are millions of people in each country descended from those who experienced the trauma of Partition. For the vast majority, their loyalties now lie with the state they inhabit, and they no longer feel the passionate love for their ancestors’ homeland as Khanna did. But they are still aware of their origins. Therefore, they often have a special interest in the other country and pay more attention to India-Pakistan relations as compared to bilateral relations with any other country. Indeed, because of their entwined pasts and exchanged populations, Pakistan and India have and will continue to have a unique bond with each other.

These special circumstances make it much more difficult to ‘de-hyphenate’ India and Pakistan from each other, as some political analysts would like to do now. There is a clear historical reality behind the close association of the two countries, so one of the two cannot disregard the other as easily as they could a more distant country.

Looking ahead, Pakistanis of Indian descent and Indians of Pakistani descent can play a large role in improving bilateral ties. If they organise politically within their respective countries, they can become powerful lobbies for positive change given their sheer numbers and influence. Pakistani-Indians and Indian-Pakistanis, perhaps as we should call them, could proceed to pressure their own governments to open up freedom of travel and trade so that they may visit and engage with their ancestral homelands more easily.

There is great untapped potential for these two communities to not ‘de-hyphenate’ India and Pakistan, but to normalise their relationship, celebrate their joint heritage, and alleviate the pain from 1947 that has only continued to build up. Then, perhaps, the descendants of Mr Khanna living in India today may be able to set their eyes and feet upon the land that he loved so dearly.

All photos: Hamza Shad

This post was originally published here.

Hamza Shad

Hamza Shad

The author is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied economics and political science. He has written for The Diplomat, The National Interest, and The Express Tribune, among other publications.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan

    With the passage of generations, the love and passion for the place of their origin diminishes. I dont feel that my child will have the same feelings like i did due to the story telling by my grandmother about her ancestral in gujranwala home or pindi. The same goes for nearly all the people of the present millenial generation. Thank you. Rab rakhaRecommend

  • mazharuddin

    This was a barbaric divide, responsibility goes to the British Government and its puppets who were on both sides, do not have any planning and even closed the door to have reconciliation in order to save human lives and avoid division without any planning. The worst crime committed by the rulers who did not agree to have a commission to assess the losses and the role of British government, Political parties and their leaders.

    This is a crime to leave such leaderships untried, no such leadership to be excused. They are responsible for the death of hundred thousand innocent people, dividing Muslims and Hindus and country for nothing. But brought the weak nations on face of earth that can not defend its sovereignty.Recommend

  • Matina Zia

    The letter does not even begin to touch the reality of what people actually suffered at the time, particularly in East Punjab. An estimated one million Muslim men women were butchered over a period of four months. Sikh ‘jathas’, sometimes composed of as many as five thousand armed men attacked villages killing, looting and burning. There was no protection. I recall women who survived screaming, ‘Is God dead that this is happening to us?’

    Each night, as a thirteen year old boy I sat on the roof of the house next my father with a shot gun, waiting for an attack to materialise. More than seventy years have passed since then but I can still hear my father’s voice telling me, ‘If they kill me first, don;t use up all the cartridges. Keep some to finish your mother and sisters before the Sikhs get to you’. There are thousands of first hand accounts that need to be collected and preserved for posterity. I have done my bit in the book, ‘Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis’..
    K. Hussan Zia.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Your assumption is based more on sentiment than on fact …… what was real then, is not real now and the future is but a calculated guess.Recommend

  • Syed Qamar

    The letter is little emotional but far from the reality that millions of Migrants butchered including minors & infant born.
    The author used the new word “Pakistanis of Indian descent” that may swiftly replaced the mouthy words like Mohajir, Urdu Speaking, Matarwaas and so. i am sure Think Tanker will definitely use this word when they feel to launch new vertical from existing four claimers of Urdu speakers.
    Authors suggestion that Pakistani of Indian descent should pressurise their government to have good ties with India shows that he is living in word of Fantasy and never been in Pakistan or visiting Pakistan on vocations.Recommend

  • Jimmy

    I guess your “research” is as onesided as it can get…villages after villages in west punjab were ethnically cleansed from landowning sikhs by poor low caste converted muslims…the entire belt of sikhs in canal colonies in punjab, peshawar, even in mirpur were slaughtered by muslims…those were mad times and no one religion was “better” than the other…Recommend

  • Akshay

    I would agree that in couple places he voluntarily or under duress brought in the Pakistan or two nation theory bias into the picture.
    Sir, it wasn’t minorities that were targeted but people of the assumed opposing religion, numbers didn’t matter as Jimmy has correctly pointed out. On that point migration happened within India & it’s arm that no longer is called India aka Pakistan.

    But yes if the rest what you say happens then certainly we can be one of the strongest country again in the world. Obviously solution is reunion & shunning the 2 nation theory.Recommend

  • Akshay

    Totally agree. You are absolutely right.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    That generation is gone. And these rare accounts don’t represent the mindset of the masses.Recommend

  • Veer Singh

    It is really tragic and sad what happened to you and other Muslims on the Indian side but as someone who’s grandfathers came over from the Pakistani side, I’ve heard similar stories of Sikhs & Hindus suffering at the hands of Muslims. If you make yourself believe that only Sikhs & Hindus did the killings while the Muslims were innocent lambs, you are deluding yourself.Recommend

  • Agrippa – The Skeptic

    I’m afraid this is an attempt at an essay by a 10th grader.
    Lahore and Delhi were homogenized!
    Lahore was, but do you have a clue on what Delhi looks like?
    Just as a swallow does not a summer make, rare individual emotions – or what is left thereof does not tell the tale of two populace bound by emotions.
    Perhaps Jinnah was right, we just don’t belong together.
    Partition was a massive catharsis, it is foolish to blame the British for what happened. The sooner the people take the ownership of what happened was done by their forefathers (the poor fore-mothers were only slaughtered) and resolve never to let it happen again, the quicker we can move out of the quagmire.
    It is amazing how even in this age of free access to knowledge, there still are people who accept one sided narrative that only millions of Muslims were killed by Sikhs and Hindus – as was told to them.Recommend

  • The Truth

    There is great falsehood when the writer tries to equate Delhi with Lahore. Muslims continued to live in Delhi. Hindu Idian government protected it. There are 18 Million Muslims in just in and around Delhi today, more than the total number of Hindus in Pakistan. The truth is , Muslims continued to live in India while Hindus have been driven to almost extinction in Pakistan. Numbers do not lie.Recommend

  • Parvez

    this is called drawing conclusions based on little evidence. the letter is a good read and a little emotional but doesn’t portray the entire situation. As a child of punjabi migrants, I think this term ‘of Indian descent’ is derogatory.Recommend

  • Balluboy

    It was bad for all. Hindus coming from Pakistan to India did not get any help from Govt and I hear Muslims going from India to Pakistan didn’t fare better either. My family was helped by Muslim family to cross border and we ensured Muslim family’s jewels in the house that we bought in India were handed over to their owners. Berlin wall has come down. Maybe one day these artificial borders that only serves Western interests disappear but I doubt if it will happen in my time. But, I feel we should stay apart in the interest of peace and ciivilisation.Recommend

  • Sane

    What Hindus in India still doing with Muslims and Sikhs?!!Recommend

  • Veer Singh

    I’m Sikh and I can tell you that Sikhs are happy in India. Sikhs are more prosperous than Hindus pretty much everywhere in India. As far as Muslims are concerned, yes there have been some stray incidents of violence against them but the perpetrators were jailed and punished as per the law. My advice to you would be that instead of worrying about minorities in India, you should worry about the Muslims of Pakistan because a lot more Muslims have been killed by Muslims in Pakistan under pretext of sect, region, ethnicity etc than by any Hindus in India.Recommend