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Surviving Delhi during Partition

By Javid Ali Khan

It had never entered my father’s mind that he would have to ‘flee’ India like a criminal. He wanted to go and settle in Pakistan, but in an organised manner, after having made appropriate living and other arrangements there, funded by the sale of his lands and urban property in India – an estate worth over 11 crores (Rs. 110 million) at that time. But no one had foreseen the calamitous effects of the Partition and the psychopathic hysterical bloodbaths that would follow it.

 

The convoy consisted of our two cars and two truckloads of villagers from Abba’s lands, who were camping in our extensive lawns for protection, all armed with lathis (bamboo poles). In the first car were Abba and his ‘shikari’: an ex-Army servant, a crack shot with shotgun/rifle who used to organise shoots & hunting expeditions (tiger, leopard, bear, crocodile) for him. The shikari was in the front seat with a rifle and two more servants with shotguns behind. That car had a Congress flag in front and Abba had donned a Nehru cap in case we were intercepted. There was only one untoward incident on the journey. A man lying on the road, pretending to be a corpse in a vain attempt to stop the speeding convoy so that his comrades hiding in the bushes on either side could attack and loot the cars, got up and ran for his life when the shikari pointed his gun at him and took aim, announcing he was about to shoot. The convoy speeded past and we reached Delhi early in the morning, driving to my maternal uncle Ibrahim Jan’s house on 15 Mahadeo Road in New Delhi. My mamujan (uncle) was a Government servant who had been kept back to wind up affairs before leaving for Pakistan. Mahadeo Road was a Government Officer’s colony so we were in relative (pun intended) safety. The two truckloads of villagers who had fled with us encamped on the lawns of the house. Over the next few days while the elders discussed what to do next, circumstances again decided for us.

My uncle’s boss sent him a message enquiring what in blazes he was up to, with a hundred “armed” men in his house. He was putting the whole colony in danger because the radical Hindu/Sikh mobs had taken note of this and were planning an attack. The villagers (“armed men”) were at once ordered to vacate the lawns immediately and go to the Indian Government-run refugee camp at the Red Fort. But only a few days after their departure, one morning while we had just sat down to breakfast, a panicky and panting Phool Mohammed (a teenaged servant, an orphan adopted by my mother, and so ‘Phulloo Bhai’ to us children) rushed in, announcing that while he was shopping he saw Sikh mobs heading towards our house.

My older cousins went for their guns, bravely announcing they would die fighting. Abba handed my mother a pistol, saying that if we are overrun, she should shoot us, the children, first – and then herself. But once the panic subsided, better sense prevailed. Once more we were all bundled into cars with the items of most value and the firearms and forming a convoy, we took the opposite direction to where Phulloo Bhai had seen the Sikh mobs coming and taking back-roads, we got out of there fast. Abba decided to take us all to his friend, Nawab Sir Mohammed Yamin Khan’s house. He was one of the nawabs from Meerut, knighted by the British. A very senior and prominent Muslim Leaguer, he had been a member of the defunct Legislative Assembly and close associate of Mr. Jinnah and uncle Liaquat, This was now the 16th of September, so uncle Liaquat was, of course, in Karachi, tackling the much more monumental problems of running the newly created country.

Yamin Khan told us he was vacating his house also, as it was vulnerable. He had already sent his younger brother Yasin Khan and both their families to his friend Abbasi sahib’s haveli. And Abbasi sahib was also a prominent – and rich – Muslim Leaguer. He had a large haveli-type mansion in old Delhi, with two storeys, high stone walls and terraces running round the upper storeys as well as the roof. It resembled a fortress. He and his grown up sons, all shikaris (hunters), were very well armed. He had given refuge so far to about 50 people, mostly from the elite circles. When we reached there with more firearms, the fortress effect was complete. The young men, including my maternal cousins, used to take turns patrolling the terraces with guns on shoulders in a show of strength and to deter any thoughts of attack from the Hindu neighbours.

The next move for our family was again to be decided, not by us, but by lady luck and circumstances. (Most of the account at this house which is to follow was related to me by one of these maternal cousins, Munir Jan, my father’s favourite, his riding and hunting companion and protege and who in later years was to become my role model and mentor.)

As our bad luck would have it, right in front of Abbasi sahib’s haveli at the corner of the road was the office of a radical Hindu organisation (I think Munir bhai said it was the Mahasabha or perhaps Raj Sangh). They complained to the authorities that the Muslims had made a fortress in front of their office and that they not only felt humiliated, as it was a deliberate show of strength, but also threatened. They put pressure on the police and other authorities to vacate this place, failing which they would have to take steps themselves. So some Government and police officials came and tried to convince Abba and Abbasi sahib to move elsewhere. They were told bluntly that there was no safe place in Delhi and here they felt safe and could hold off attacks.

“But until when?” they were asked.

Abba and other elders were of the opinion that this madness would run itself out and people would start to tire of the killing and looting and sanity – and normality would return. They also emphasised that it was the Indian Government’s duty to restore peace and order quickly and return things to normal. After some more visits by Government and police officials, the impasse remained and the situation was turning serious and explosive.

Reports of this stand-off reached Nehru’s ears/desk, especially as the “ring leader” seemed to be Liaquat Ali Khan’s younger brother – my father.

Nehru was naturally alarmed at this and sent a message that he would like to come to tea and discuss our situation. So he came to tea. My cousin, Munir Jan (who was privy to these discussions hiding behind a curtain) told me many years later that the discussions did not go well, as Nehru was blamed for not doing enough to stop the rioting and slaughter. He did not lose his cool and pleaded with Abba to vacate and told all the others that the situation could turn very nasty. He frankly expressed his helplessness and that of the police in controlling the “insane” and hysterical bloodthirsty mobs. To cut it short, a compromise was reached. Nehru told Abba that uncle Liaquat had donated his house, Gul-e-Rana to the Pakistan Government and it was to be its embassy. But just then, it had been turned into a refugee camp. It was chaotic, with no one to administer it.

And so Nehru requested Abba to go there with his family and take over Gul e Rana and run the camp. But Abba was adamant that he would not save his own life and leave the rest of the people there to their fate. So it was decided that Amma and family would go to Gul e Rana and she would take over its running and administration. Abba would remain behind until all the people taking refuge in the haveli had been moved in instalments to safety.