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Millions Of Lives Were Changed Immediately With The Partition Of India

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At midnight 70 years ago today, a jubilant India ended 200 years of British rule. Pakistan was born the same hour. Muslims fled India for Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs headed south and east into majority-Hindu India. Slaughter and upheaval hastened both migrations.

NPR's Julie McCarthy spoke with survivors in New Delhi about the partition that changed the lives of millions overnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Vocalizing).

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The Grand Mosque in Delhi's Old City housed Muslims who were forced from their homes by religious riots that swept through the capital 70 years ago. Hindus and Sikhs fought Muslims who overloaded trains to cross the border into their new country. It would not be Mirza Naseem Changezi's. Propped up in his bed within earshot of the mosque, this 107-year-old Muslim says for generations from this very spot his family fought the British to quit India.

MIRZA NASEEM CHANGEZI: (Speaking Urdu).

MCCARTHY: "All we wanted was our freedom," he says, surrounded by the heirlooms that bind him to this 400-year-old walled city.

Changezi's son, Khalid, rolls out a 25-foot-long family tree firmly planting them in India. The elder Changezi says there was never a question of leaving for Pakistan.

CHANGEZI: (Speaking Urdu).

MCCARTHY: "Would we leave behind the bones, the shrines, the graves of ancestors? How could we leave that?", he asks.

On the opposite side of the city, a 90-year-old Sikh asks a similar question from a different vantage point. Sampoorna Singh Virk navigated out of Pakistan and into India.

SAMPOORNA SINGH VIRK: (Speaking Urdu).

MCCARTHY: "Who wishes to leave their home? Your birthplace - it's extremely sad. But we were compelled to," he says.

More than 7 million Hindus and Sikhs would make such a journey. Most, like Virk, came from western Punjab fleeing over fields they had farmed for centuries. Partition split the Punjab in two.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLATTERING DISHES)

MCCARTHY: A daughter-in-law busies herself in the kitchen while Virk explains his home was formerly a Muslim's who had crossed to the new Islamic state. India's government allotted Virk's family the house and 500 acres for the 800 acres they had to abandon in Pakistan. Virk's family of four uncles crossed the border into India when passions were at a fever pitch.

VIRK: (Speaking Urdu).

MCCARTHY: "People were hanging off the roof of the train and stuffed inside. They were scared for their lives," he says. Soldiers escorting them warned everyone to discard all weapons and ceremonial daggers worn by Sikhs before they reached Lahore, the prize given to Pakistan that seethed with unrest.

VIRK: (Speaking Urdu).

MCCARTHY: "A lot of people threw their weapons in the river. We didn't," Virk says, "because we thought that if someone attacks us, we'd die of fighting."

By some estimates, as many as 2 million people were slaughtered in Partition. D.B Ahuja, a Hindu fleeing to India, was nearly one of them. A teenager, his narrow escape came when his family of eight was delayed catching a train near the Pakistani city of Sialkot. A woman in their group turned ill.

D B AHUJA: She felt sick, so we could not catch the earlier train. And all of us cursed her.

MCCARTHY: You cursed her.

AHUJA: We cursed her in whispers.

MCCARTHY: They boarded the next train, only to discover that the one they had missed had been attacked, the passengers butchered.

AHUJA: I saw the breasts of the ladies slashed and the vultures hovering and eating the dead bodies.

MCCARTHY: At the end of the train line, they walked across a bridge and into India. Spent and soaked from the monsoons, they kissed the ground of their new land.

AHUJA: New motherland, you see. But what we had to go through was again a terrible experience.

MCCARTHY: Ahuja's father, a factory owner in Pakistan, was reduced in India to commuting three hours a day for a menial job. He'd wanted to start a new business and asked Ahuja's mother to sell her jewelry.

AHUJA: She refused.

MCCARTHY: And said the jewels were only meant...

AHUJA: For the education of my children.

MCCARTHY: Under the glow of an oil lamp, Ahuja resumed his studies and passed one of the hardest exams in India. He was admitted into the elite administrative services and retired as the commissioner of the Indian Revenue Service.

AHUJA: It is an instinct of survival. But I couldn't have done it without luck.

MCCARTHY: Ahuja, who turns 90 next month, puts most everything that's happened to him since Partition down to luck - beginning with a woman who kept his family from boarding an ill-fated train.

AHUJA: Only that old lady's sickness - that made all the difference.

MCCARTHY: Most refugees locked their doors and never returned. S.K. Sethi's mother, a Hindu, was escorted from their family home in Lahore with nothing more than her nightgown and slippers.

S K SETHI: Somebody from the crowd says, you will leave from this veranda as you are. My mother and my brother walked out.

MCCARTHY: The passage of time has not dimmed Sethi's belief that dividing the subcontinent came at a price that should've never been paid. Even at 91, he is incredulous.

SETHI: What have we gained by Partition? India and Pakistan - what have we gained? There's bickering everyday. There are fights everyday. What for? It just doesn't sink in.

MCCARTHY: Partition stirs deep emotions among the last generation to have witnessed it. Men openly wept. Some moved to tears recalling the Muslim friends they had left behind from the untroubled days of their youth. At his home in New Delhi, 85-year-old A.K. Saigal, a Hindu refugee from Lahore, broke down talking about an old friend from his boyhood across the border.

A K SAIGAL: I rang him on his golden anniversary, and I was told he just expired. On his golden anniversary, I - I cannot think of it. He's a wonderful friend.

MCCARTHY: What comes across even seven decades after the trauma of Partition is the humanity - the lack of bitterness and desire to know each other again.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.