, eighty-three years old and blind lives in village Buttar Khurd just off the Grand Trunk Road
between Amritsar and Jalandhar
. I met him on a cold and foggy day in January. Even before his grandson led him into the courtyard of the house where we waited, we heard the tap-tap-tap of his walking stick. Slightly built of medium height, old Charan Singh had milky white eyes that had not seen for nearly twenty years.
In 1947, as a twenty-year-old sepoy in the district administration, he was assigned as security guard to a Sikh revenue officer when partition was announced. According to Charan Singh, this officer tried every which way for Kasur to be part of India, but what was a mere revenue officer when the powers that were wanted the city to go to Pakistan. And so, one day, all the Hindu and Sikh officers attended office for the last time and prepared to head east for Khem Karan, the nearest town of the new, divided India.
|My friend late Talwinder Singh with the blind and elderly Charan Singh|
On the way, they crossed the BRB canal and Charan Singh recalls seeing it virtually clogged with dead bodies, men, women, and children alike. These were those luckless Hindus and Sikhs who had only a few days earlier lived peaceably with their Muslim neighbours in nearby villages. ‘My mind was filled not with grief at seeing the dead, but with anger and an overpowering desire for revenge,’ he recalls.
Back home in Buttar, young Charan Singh joined the mobs running amok across the country. They killed and looted, killed and looted, their hearts bursting with religious fervour and indignation at the needless deaths of all their co-religionists who had died in Pakistan. There was no remorse, no twinge of guilt upon doing in a fellow human being. It was as if men had descended to a level below the lowliest beasts. As more and more trainloads of dead Sikhs and Hindus arrived, the call to exact greater vengeance charged up Charan Singh. To add to this were the tales told by those lucky to have lost only their worldly possessions and made it across the border with their lives.
Charan Singh says it was religious fervour that made him become part of the rampaging mob. It was passion whipped up by religious leaders in the name of god that made him kill the very same people who had lived amicably in the village. He says his blood had turned white and he lost count of the number of people he killed. Many of these were neighbours to whom his family sent food on the Lori festival and who in turn sent them vermicelli or meat depending on which Eid it was.
On one occasion, the mob he was with filled up three bullock carts with the dead to dump in the Beas River that flows a few miles eastward of Buttar Khurd. This grisly convoy was followed by the women who had survived the killing of their men folk. Charan Singh and others offered these women life and security if they would care to live with Sikh families.
‘But those women were of a strange mettle. Not one of those more than a hundred agreed to convert.’ On the banks of the Beas, already swollen by Bhadon rains and dead bodies, the carts were tipped over one by one. As the bodies splashed into the muddy waters, the women jumped in after their dead kin.
‘Not one of them lived,’ says Charan Singh. ‘They went into the eddies without a sound, without a cry or a curse hurled at us, we who had wronged them so terribly.’ Old Charan Singh took a deep sigh and fell silent, his head down his eyes staring sightlessly at his hands in his lap. I do not know if he shed a tear or even if his dead eyes still possess the capacity to weep, but a sigh escaped his lips before he looked up again. ‘This great sin was wrought by our religious leaders. It was they who urged us to kill and avenge our brothers,’ he said.
‘Now I pay for that crime against humanity. My sight has gone because I sinned against my own brothers. I killed without remorse and now the Purmatma punishes me. What is life with sightless eyes? I have suffered this miserable life for twenty years and do not know how much longer I will live.’ But in the heat of that madness, Charan Singh had felt no regret. Remorse only set in some time after.
Back home in Lahore my friend Iqbal Qaiser, the Punjabi intellectual, had a similar story to tell from the village of Laliani near Kasur. Some years ago, he interviewed an elderly man in that village who told him of two men in the village who shared the time of partition. One Jalal or Jala, as he was known, of the caste Teli and the other Zaildar Sardar Anant Singh Bhular. Jala Teli, a feared hoodlum, ran a gang of four whose depredations became more and more fearsome as the hour of the division of the land drew nigh. One of the members of this gang was one Karim Buksh also of the caste Teli from whose brother Iqbal heard the tale.
Karim Buksh, it was said, had died a sorry, repentant man. Blind and crippled for many years before death finally overtook him, the man rued his part in the killings that oversaw partition. His dying lament was that his end was miserable because of the sins he committed against humanity as a member of the Jala Teli gang.
Now, Laliani was a predominantly Sikh village. The only non-Sikhs were the Telis and Kumhars besides a number of Christian families. There were also some landed Muslim families of the Bhular caste who had converted sometime in the 17th century. As the owner of about two thousand acres of agricultural land, Sardar Anant Singh was the big man in the village and among the richest persons in the district. More than that, he was a man possessed of kindness and a largesse of the spirit that knew no bounds and which transcended all considerations of caste and creed.
The story that Karim Buksh’s brother narrated has it that one day this good man was out on his horse when he came upon a young and obviously newly wedded couple. Who were they, he asked, and where were they headed? The man replied that he, a Christian of village Katloi, was a son in law of Laliani village and was on his way to take his bride visiting her family. Sardar Anant Singh dismounted, helped the young woman onto his horse and taking the reins in his hands led the couple straight to his home.
There this man of God gifted the couple a mare, a buffalo, and new sets of clothing just as he would his own son in law on his first visit home. Having fed them, he then had them escorted to the bride’s home. That was not all, says Iqbal Qaiser. The mosque known even today as Adday vali Maseet owes everything to the good Sardar. He got his kinsmen, the Muslim Bhulars, to donate the land for the mosque and paid for the building of the structure from his hard-earned wealth. It was also said that there was scarcely a family in Laliani that had not at some time or the other availed of the kindness of Sardar Anant Singh. Such was the goodness of that man.
When the partition riots began, the police post of Laliani was in the charge of a Muslim inspector. Greatly prejudiced against non-Muslims, this man suggested to Jala Teli and his gang to do as they wished with the Sikhs, assuring them that he and his force would stand aside. And so when the riots began, the inspector invited Sardar Anant Singh to his police station to discuss expatriation procedures for Sikh families. There, outside the police station, Jala and his cohorts awaited the arrival of the good man. And there, in full view of the police force as well as of so many others who had benefited from his munificence, Karim Buksh and Jala attacked and slew Sardar Anant Singh Bhular.
With him gone, chaos descended upon the Sikh community. Leaderless and surrounded by mobs baying for blood, they sought refuge in the local gurudwara. The gang led by Jala Teli and his three cohorts set the temple alight. All those who had taken refuge in the house of worship perished in the flames. I do not know if it was good fortune or the injustice of Providence that Anant Singh’s family had already been expatriated to India there to grieve over the death of such a humane and benevolent person.
Karim Buksh Teli passed away blind and crippled and it is entirely my loss that I missed him by many years. Iqbal Qaiser who interviewed his brother Meraj Din (died April 2008) says he was wracked by grief and shame for what he had done during the riots. Like Charan Singh in Buttar Khurd, Karim Buksh was convinced that his blindness and caducity resulting in the inability to even attend to his various needs by himself was divine retribution.
Iqbal tells me that Meraj Din had said that Jala Teli and his three associates all died miserable, painful deaths seeking forgiveness for the sins they had committed against their fellow humans. Like Karim Buksh, Jala too was blinded and crippled in his last years. And when he would not die and his sons wearied of tending to the old man, they turned him out of the house. Jala Teli who may or may not have availed of the benevolence of Sardar Anant Singh, but who surely had denied others to continue to benefit from this man’s goodness, died on the streets of Laliani, unloved and untended, weeping in his final days over the sins he had committed during the partition riots.
To have slain a man of such kindness and generosity as Anant Singh is reputed to have possessed, a man who had a heart of gold and whose soul was lit by divine light, must have taken a callousness and barbarity of the meanest strain. I missed Karim Buksh and Jala Teli by some years and could not hear their stories from their own tongues. But I would dearly have liked to ask them if they, like Charan Singh, also held their religious leaders responsible for fomenting this hatred.
There is no medical or scientific proof of it, but I am convinced that it was the immensity of their guilt that had brought physical disability to these men. Divine retribution is only a belief and a topic for teachers of religion to expound upon, but it is the realisation within of misdeed that creates hell in this life for the perpetrator. It was this guilt that blinded old Charan Singh in Buttar Khurd and Jala and his cronies in Laliani.
Related: Across the Border