‘Finally we are together’: partition’s broken families reunite after seven decades

·9-min read

It was an embrace that held 74 years of pain and longing. As Sikka Khan, 75, fell into the arms of his older brother Sadiq Khan, now in his 80s, the pair wept with simultaneous sorrow and joy. More than seven decades had passed since the brothers, torn apart by the horrors of partition, had seen each other. With Sikka in India and Sadiq in Pakistan, neither knew if the other was alive. Yet both had never stopped looking.

But on a crisp January afternoon this year, the pair were reunited along the border that had so devastatingly fractured their family. “Finally, we are together,” Sadiq told his brother, tears streaming down his face.

It was 75 years ago, on 15 August 1947, that the subcontinent was divided down religious lines to become two independent countries, India and Pakistan. It was to be a bloody and bitter partition. After 300 years of official British presence, the key figures of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi and his protege and future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, envisaged a single, secular country. Muslim political leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, however, argued for a separate state for Muslims, fearful of the implications of a Hindu-majority India.

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As religious tensions were stoked, deadly riots broke out, targeting Hindus, then Muslims and then Sikhs. The British, keen to extricate themselves from India quickly, oversaw the drawing of a crude border that ruptured the Indian states of Punjab to the west and Bengal to the east, to form a disjointed Pakistan that angered all communities.

It instigated a mutual genocide on both sides of the new border. Whole villages were set alight, children were massacred, and an estimated 75,000 women were raped. In Punjab, the centre of the violence, pregnant women had babies cut from their bellies and trains full of refugees – Muslims fleeing Indian Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus fleeing western Pakistan – were ambushed and arrived at stations filled with silent bloody corpses.

The true death toll is still unknown, with estimates ranging from 200,000 up to 2 million, and it resulted in the biggest forced migration in history as more than 14 million people fled their homes. From that point onward, India and Pakistan were sworn enemies, split by a border that over decades would become increasingly fractious and impenetrable.

Families caught in the chaos and brutality were forced to leave everything behind and many were separated as they crossed into India or Pakistan. Though many tried desperately to find one other later, via newspaper adverts, letters and messages on noticeboards, cross-border communication was limited. Visa restrictions and a deep-rooted fear of the “other side” also prevented most from ever going back over the border.

But recently, social media has opened up a realm of new possibilities. Facebook pages and YouTube channels, some with thousands of members from India and Pakistan, have begun to reconnect people with the homes and family members lost during partition and the resulting conflict that also split Kashmir.

Video accounts and fragments of information are posted on the pages: a photo or name, a village, or a description of a house. As the posts are shared widely by people on both sides of the border, and by the diaspora across the world, they sometimes turn up leads. While getting a visa to cross the border is still a challenge, video calls have been arranged so that people can see the homes and villages they were forced to leave behind so long ago.

“For those who lived through partition, that yearning for their origins remains very strong,” said Aanchal Malhotra, an author who has spent years documenting the oral history of partition.

“One of the most common things I hear in my research is ‘When I close my eyes, I see my home’ or ‘Every night in my dreams, I cross the border.’ Most people have resigned themselves to the fact they will never see their homes again. But the great power of social media is that it is borderless and it’s been beautiful to see the way it’s been used in India, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh, to connect people to a past they thought they had lost.”

Makhu Devi, 87, who lives in Indian-controlled Kashmir, said she had been given a new lease of life after a Facebook group had recently connected her to relatives still living in her old village, now in Pakistan, which she was forced to flee. They now have regular phone calls, though the first few times everyone hardly spoke, as they were crying too heavily. “My memory gets refreshed,” said Devi of the calls. “I am taken back to those times. I feel as young and energetic as I was then.”

Second and third generations have also embraced social media groups, to connect to an ancestry which often goes undiscussed in families amid a pervasive culture of silence around partition. Lines of cross-border communication have been opened up in innovative ways, including through dating apps. On Instagram it has become common for people to search for hashtags of the cities or villages where their grandparents came from to see what they look like now and find people still living there.

Punjabi Lehar, a YouTube channel set up by Nasir Dhillon, 38, a real estate dealer from Faisalabad Punjab in Pakistan, has made about 800 videos helping people reconnect with a person or a place lost in partition. According to his estimates, 300 have led to in-person reunions between loved ones who were separated by the India-Pakistan border.

Dhillon grew up hearing his family and village elders talk longingly of the ancestral villages they could no longer visit, and he began using social media to share their stories and gather information. But after his posts and videos began to go viral, “the response was so overwhelming that I realised this is the story of the entire Punjab”.

“Whatever I am doing is because of my roots,” said Dhillon. “We might be living in two hostile countries, but our hearts are still in pre-partition time. I pray there is never a partition like this anywhere in the world – it is a cruel thing.”

His greatest regret is that he could not take his father, who died in 2018, to their ancestral family shrine in India, which he finally managed to locate thanks to social media. “He was longing to see his native village till the last days,” said Dhillon. He has not yet been able to visit it either; last year India rejected his visa application.

It was thanks to Dhillon’s channel that the Khan brothers found each other again. Sikka, who was born to a Muslim family in what is now Indian Punjab, was just six months old when partition violence broke out. Away from home with his mother, they were forced to take shelter with a local Sikh family who were protecting their Muslim neighbours from the massacres.

After weeks of carnage, they emerged, but to terrible scenes. The nearby river was so filled with bodies it ran red with blood. And in Sikka’s home village of Jagraon 40 miles away, there were no Muslims left; no trace of Sikka’s father, his 10-year-old brother or eight-year-old sister. Sikka’s mother, consumed with grief, drowned herself. Sikka was left with no family except a penniless uncle, and was raised by a Sikh family from his mother’s village.

He spent his whole adult life trying to find news of his family, particularly his beloved brother Sadiq. He made speculative calls and wrote hundreds of letters to vague addresses in Pakistan, to no avail. He never married; without family around him, he said, “something was always missing so it never felt right”.

It was by chance in 2019 that a friend from the village was sent a YouTube video from Punjabi Lehar by a relative. In it, an old man in his 80s living in Pakistan spoke of trying to find the younger brother he had lost after he fled the village of Jagraon during partition. After Dhillon was contacted, it was confirmed: this man was Sadiq Khan.

An emotional video call was arranged between the two brothers, and soon they were speaking to each other every day. Sikka finally learned the story of his family; that his father had been murdered in a communal attack and his brother and sister had fled to a border refugee camp where his sister had died from illness. Sadiq made it to Pakistan, settled in Faisalabad and had six children and several grandchildren, but never a day went by when he did not think of his lost brother.

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The brothers were prevented from meeting for almost three years thanks to visa issues and the Covid pandemic, but in January, a reunion was finally arranged at the Kartarpur corridor, a place of religious pilgrimage recently opened to Indians and Pakistanis. “I felt complete,” Sikka said of the encounter. Both brothers agreed: they had stayed alive this long so that they could meet again.

In April, Sikka was finally granted a visa to stay in Pakistan for three months, and Sadiq then came back with him to India for two months. They hope to see each other again soon; Sadiq keeps teasing Sikka that if he returns to Pakistan, he will finally find him a wife.

“Now I don’t worry about anything,” said Sikka. “I just want to see my brother and stay close to him.” But, Sikka added, he was also angry. “Why did they divide this country, divide my family? There are still so many people who have not found their family or not got the visa to go across the border. I was the lucky one.”

• This article was amended on 14 August 2022 to refer to 300 years of official British presence, rather than 300 years of British rule.