75 years later, survivors of India’s violent partition return home—virtually

Partition came into effect at midnight on August 15, 1947, and what had been tremors of instability quickly escalated into mass slaughter. In many parts of India that had been divided, neighbors turned on each other and militias killed, tortured, and raped with a brutality some international observers compared to the horrors at recently liberated Nazi concentration camps. As many as one million to two million people were estimated to have been killed. Among them was Sadiq’s grandmother, whom he later learned had been burned alive in her home in Jalandhar.

In his new country of Pakistan, Sadiq became an electrical engineer and married Syedda Musarrat, another refugee. They had five children and in the 1990s, they retired to Fresno to join one of their sons.

Seated next to her husband, her hands clasped around the VR headset, Musarrat is immersed in her return to her hometown of Dhariwal, once famous for its high-quality textile mill.

On the morning of August 14, 1947, the city was peaceful, but soon unrest brewing in other regions reached there too. When the new flag of India was raised above the mill three days later, riots erupted.

Musarrat and her family joined thousands of other Muslim refugees trudging towards Lahore in the monsoon rains. At night they hid in friendly Hindu temples and police stations, moving each time they heard a mob coming, until they arrived a month later in what had become Pakistan. Musarrat’s parents, once landlords in Dhariwal, had to survive on scraps, the 92-year-old woman recalls. “We thought nothing is better than a piece of land: the safest possession of mankind that cannot be stolen.”

Neither Musarrat nor Sadiq ever spoke of Partition to their children, and for years she brushed off the urgings of younger family members to visit their childhood hometowns. “Who would like to live in bitter memories?” Musarrat wonders. “The sooner you forget, the better.”

Now, as she takes off the virtual reality headset, she seems dismayed by the toll 75 years had taken on Dhariwal. Although the famed mill still bears the name of the British India Corporation, foliage grows from its broken windows—a far cry from the prosperous industry that once employed 4,000 people. And the girls’ school, which had two live-in maids when she was a student, is now decrepit, its entry gates covered in rust.

Musarrat had gone home, albeit in a way she’d never imagined—and more importantly, future generations could learn from the history she’d experienced. She says they’d never understand, though, what it was like to see it happen in real time, to know the people who’d lived, fought, and died during Partition.

“An era,” she says, “has gone by.”


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