Late Col Dalip Singh narrates his story of transporting Muslim refugees to Lahore and bringing Hindus and Sikhs to India during partition.
After having read many discourses on the subject of refugees, I listened to my inner voice, which told me that there are not many with my experience who can relocate refugees from both sides. A few months before Partition, I was posted at an Army transport company stationed in Lahore Cantonment. A unit had just come back from Iraq to India and all jawans and officers had guns. Still, there was shortage of ammunition. During Partition, this unit came under the jurisdiction of Pakistan and had men from all States, religion and caste. Non-Muslim jawans had to stay in Lahore until the unit had the required strength of Muslims. Our company was also assigned the responsibility of relocating the Muslim soldiers’ families, who were in India as also the Indian soldiers’ families residing in the villages in Pakistan.
August 15, 1947, passed and after a few days, I was deputed with a couple of lorries to go to the ammunition depot at Kasu Begu and bring the ammunition for the armoury. The depot was located near Ferozepur on the Indian side. When we reached Kasu Begu, the depot commander told us that he had just received an order saying that ammunition should not be dispensed to the units based in Pakistan. A problem had arisen. I made earnest supplications but the commander seemed tied. I tried to find a way out and told him that he had received the signal only that day and could simply backdate the release order. The officer understood that this would solve the problem and we loaded the ammunition in the trucks.
A friend of mine, Nur Mohammad Gondal, was posted in the Ferozepur Cantonment. Both of us had returned to India from the supply depot in Aden (Saudi Arabia now Yemen). Later, I was posted to Lahore and Gondal was posted to Ferozepur. When I went to see him, I came to know that he had gone to a village to fetch the family of a Muslim jawan. I waited for him and camped in his unit. Soon after arriving from Aden, Gondal got married and was staying with his family in Ferozepur. At the gate of his house, there was a guard with a sten gun and a few riflemen. His house was on a main street that was being patrolled by many groups shouting anti-Pakistan slogans. At night, we discussed the possibility of transporting him and his family to Lahore. We both went to his commander and he agreed. The whole night we packed his household and prepared for our departure. When offices opened the next day, Mohammad got his duty slip and we left for Lahore. On the way, there were a few sloganeers on the road and many groups indulging in loot, who seeing military vehicles, would give way. On the day of our arrival, similar scenes were to be seen. Here, I would like to mention a scenario. About 200-300 yards near the Ferozepur border, one could see (if one knew) the Kikar (Acacia arabica), where Shaheed Bhagat Singh was hanged. Military guards were posted outside my house — the only bungalow between Sadar Bazaar Lahore and Mughalpura railway station — allotted to me and shared with another officer.
On reaching Lahore, Gondal and his family were sent to Gujarat (north of Gujranwala) and the lorry brought back non-Muslim families from there. Three brothers of my father used to stay in Arif Wala near Mandi Montgomery. To fetch them and other families from that area, I got two vehicles and on reaching, we found that all of them, together with other refugees, had left via Pakpatan to India. Deadly scenes on the Pakpatan Fazilka road were seen. Driving through the deserted habitats, innumerable dead bodies lay scattered. At many places, the stench was so overwhelming that we had to block our noses while passing through. At many places enroute, we had to get off the lorries and clear the road of dead bodies blocking our way. Ultimately, we did make it to Fazilka. In these lorries, the seat next to the driver had a shutter above that could be opened. For almost the entire journey, I stood in this opening. Passing through the middle of Fazilka Bazaar, I spotted my father’s elder brother running and stopping the lorry. It was a moment of happiness as he told me that they had all reached Fazilka and some relatives were at the refugee camp. After picking them up, we spent the night in the Fazilka dak bungalow.
The next day, we left for Lahore via Ferozepur. I made the mistake of taking that route instead of another direct road to Lahore via Ludhiana. After crossing the border on our way to Lahore, we came across a number of Pakistani military check posts and I had to explain myself everywhere. At many places, they checked the lorries. Since my unit came under the Pakistani command, there were no major problems. After a couple of days in Lahore, I applied for a visit to Ludhiana. During the Raj, all the big units were commanded by a British officer. Our unit commander, a Major, turned out to be an extremely helpful person. Our unit used to get many requests to supply vehicles. I transported some more non-Muslims to Ludhiana and when we reached the Jalandhar check post on our return, I was shown a communiqué stating that any vehicle going to Pakistan, before proceeding further, was to report to the camp commander of the Jalandhar Cantonment refugee camp. There were a few affluent Muslim families waiting at the check post, who asked me if I could take them to Lahore. I informed them that these vehicles were for ferrying the Muslim families of the military personnel and refused their requests. Earlier in Ludhiana, I had requests from friends to carry some Muslim families across and I refused them, too. Along with the refugees from the Jalandhar camp, we proceeded towards Lahore. On reaching, I got an order for my platoon to pick up refugees from the Sikh National College, take them to India and on our return, bring back the refugees assembled at Khilchia, a big Muslim village between Beas and Amritsar.
As soon as the lorries entered the college, people filled up the vehicles without permission. When I reported to the camp commandant for further instructions, he showed his constraints. People were sitting on the bonnet cover of the engine. I tried in vain to convince them that we would take all of them in turns. When we started and were about to exit Lahore, we met a magistrate at a police control. He insisted on checking every single vehicle as they were Pakistani property and we were taking them out of the country. I made him understand that my vehicles would return with refugees from Khilchia and if the vehicles were stopped constantly, I would not be able to do my duty. I promised him that in return, I would not get the vehicles checked that would come with refugees from Amritsar. He understood the situation and we moved on. The refugees were taken off at a Hindu camp, set up in an orchard on the left side of the road and we proceeded to Khilchia. While returning with Muslim refugees, we were stopped by a non-Muslim refugee leader, who on seeing the Muslims, wanted to seize them. I made him understand that it was my duty to bring non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan and take back Muslim refugees from here. On reaching Lahore, I got the vehicles emptied in front of the Sadar Police Station. Next day, when I repeated the same procedure, the Thanedar requested me to drop the refugees at the refugee camp outside Lahore on the Ferozepur road as they were spreading a lot of filth around. After that, I never faced any problems. Evacuating the refugees from the Sikh National College, I was also asked to evacuate the refugees from DAV college hostel to Amritsar.
In due time, all the Sikh and Hindu refugees were evacuated from Lahore. Everyday, the Kafilas (caravans) and the trains were attacked and finally, we got orders to transport non-Muslim jawans in lorries and to report for duty at Jalandhar Cantonment. There was so much bloodshed near Mughalpura that we were asked not to take the Amritsar road but to go via the Ferozepur-Ludhiana route. After crossing Ferozepur, continuous downpour forced us to break our journey in Ludhiana. We parked our vehicles near the old courts down the Mall road. I went to see the Sessions Judge and requested permission to stay for the night in his office premises.
Next day, we passed through Philaur, Guraiya, Phagwara and crossing Railpur, on the right hand side opposite the railway station, we came to know that both the bridges on the river Wayin had been blown up. We had to stop and camp at the railway station and we arranged to get rations and vegetables from Jalandhar Cantonment. Rail and road communication from Jalandhar and Amritsar was stopped. One day, after crossing the broken bridge over the hanging girders, both the Majors, Commanding Officers (British) of the Lahore and Jalandhar transport companies, arrived on foot at our camp and ordered me to go to Ludhiana and take up the command of the Platoon of the Jalandhar transport company there. After a while, our Brigade was ordered to shift the refugees from Doraha refugee camp (which was under Patiala State that time), Ludhiana camp, Mulanpur camp, Jagraon camp up to Bahina Police jurisdiction and look after the safe movement of the Kafilas to their destinations. When those moved on, I had orders to provide transport for the sick and elderly, who were neglected and left behind at the camps and to transfer them to the next refugee camp. After the Kafilas had been moved, the roads looked almost empty. I was lucky that my village was only five miles from Ludhiana.
One day, three men, Sohan Singh, Bachan Singh and Tota Singh, visited me. That day, a Kafila was stationed for the night at a camp where there is an agriculture university now. The following day, I went to my village and found that the three men had not reached the village. We got worried as they had to pass by the refugee camp on foot and might have been cornered. When we went to the campsite next day, we saw some freshly spread soil and after digging the site, we found their bodies. Our apprehensions proved right. During this period, a Patwari from our village went with cash to a refugee camp to pick up a good breed horse. Neither did he return nor was his dead body recovered.
Besides being used for the refugees, my vehicles were also deputed to the PWD for constructing the refugees rehabilitation camps at a site where there is now a new model town. One of the camps was raised by my school friend Jagjit Singh Gill. One day, passing through my village on my return, an old woman stood in front of my jeep and said, “Oh my son! What is this creation of Pakistan? My married daughter is sitting in my house and her husband has kept a Muslim woman in his house. I came to know that his house was in Ramgarh village in Patiala State.” Lt Ajmer Singh Gill of the Patiala Lancers was a good friend of mine and he was in charge of the Doraha refugee camp. Whenever I had to go to Doraha, I would visit him and when he came to Ludhiana, he would visit me. When I told him about the story of the old woman, he assured me not to worry and that we would see her settled. Lt Ajmer Singh used to go hunting near Doraha. One day in the evening, after eating and drinking, we went to Ramgarh village with two or three vehicles. A word was spread in the village that the vehicles had come to transport all Muslim women to Pakistan. There in that village, the liquor shop was auctioned from time to time and during that period, the contract was held by a classmate friend of mine from Lalton village. He was very happy to meet us and invited us for food and drinks and assured us that he would settle the girl from my village. After meals we found the entire village empty, menfolk with the shady women hid in the fields. That day we did not succeed. In a few days time, however, my friend successfully rehabilitated the girl from my village. Those days, when the Kafilas would move on the roads, the scene would be the same everywhere. Once, when I was returning from Doraha at night after a meeting with Lt Ajmer Singh Gill, my jeep toppled over. The three people in the rear fell out but the driver and I remained trapped in our seats under the jeep. Grateful that my head was sticking out of the jeep and the driver was breathing heavily behind the front glass frame. The three people managed to lift the jeep a little and rested it on a stone but could not turn it over. After a little while, a truck stopped and four people climbed out and straightened our jeep. The driver tried to start the engine and we drove directly to Brown Hospital, Ludhiana. The doctor on duty there gave me first aid and tranquilisers, enabling me to sleep for the night. Next day, I was transported by military ambulance to the military hospital in Jalandhar Cantonment. My shoulder and left hand were fractured and were put under plaster. At the hospital I would listen all day long to the radio in the Officers Mess. On the evening of January 30, 1948, the radio was interrupted and we heard that Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated. It was being continually repeated and I was informing everybody around.
Readers can very well imagine that from before the creation of Pakistan up to January 30, 1948, my entire time was spent in the service of the refugees. My life was spared because of the honesty in the delivery of my duty. When I was struck under the jeep, many instances came to my mind. One instance I want to mention is that an elderly acquaintance stopped me near the Ghanta Ghar, Ludhiana, when I was transporting Muslim families of jawans to Lahore. He came over to my side and said, “Dalip, there are many rich families, who have not been able to go to Pakistan, if you can take them to Lahore, they can give you money in abundance.” I told the person “Masterji, these vehicles are only meant to transport the families of the army jawans, not anybody else.” Also, while stuck under the jeep, I was thinking if I had not done my duty honestly, my life would not have been spared.
(Translated by AR Ranjit Singh, son of the author)
Writer: Late Col Dalip Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer