Painful memories of partition should spur on modern India

Memories of the horror and bereavement of India's partition should make this Independence Day a solemn occasion for re-dedication to strong honest governance.

'Please keep within my eyesight," Major Ram Singh cautioned my brother Khemchand as they neared our house.

Just a week earlier, in August 1947, I had fled from our home in Tandalianwala, a settlement in the undivided Punjab, as the partition of the country seemed imminent.

My parents refused to accept that the country would be divided and were adamant about staying put. My elder brother and I thought differently. So as a first step we escorted our younger siblings to Amritsar to ensure their safety.

Now we fretted about how to fetch our parents. The situation along the new border had worsened, so we approached the Indian army officials and explained our dilemma. They told us that a convoy, led by Major Ram Singh, was visiting our area to extract Indians and one of us could travel with it. A few hours later my brother boarded the army truck bound for Lahore.

The next morning the convoy reached our house, where my brother found our parents' motionless bodies in their bedroom. They had been slaughtered in the mindless mayhem that gripped post-partition Punjab.

But there was no time for grief or tears as the violence continued outside. There were no friends or relations to help with the funeral arrangements either, but the soldiers arranged for the cremation of our parents.

It was dusk before my brother completed our parents' rites. By that time the army convoy had scouted the area and rounded up some more petrified families trying to flee the bloodshed.

The convoy began its journey back to Amritsar in the dark. There was dread and tension in the air among the three army trucks crammed with refugees. The headlights of the vehicles lit the narrow road while the soldiers peered into the darkness, ever alert for snipers.

The refugees who huddled in the trucks were in a state of shock. They had seen their homes looted and rased. Some, like my brother, had lost family members. All were going to a country and to a future, about which they knew nothing. Many were penniless.

The still of the night was shattered by gunfire. Within a few minutes the entire convoy ground to a halt. The soldiers clutched their rifles and looked sharply into the darkness.

After a short pause, a soldier returned and reported, "Major Ram Singh has been shot. Some people were hiding in the trees on the road. They fired at our convoy and fled." The soldier's face was taut.

The news petrified the refugees. The leader of the convoy had been shot. What if there was another attack? After about 30 minutes, another soldier announced, "We are moving. Everyone please be alert."

"How is Major Ram Singh?" my brother asked the soldier. "The soldier turned away and replied. "He is no more." The soldier did not look anyone in the eye.

It was another three hours before the convoy eventually reached Amritsar. The body of the fallen major was wrapped in a blanket and placed in the lead vehicle. Throughout the rest of the journey, the soldiers and refugees remained fiercely alert. Everyone kept staring into the darkness.

In Amritsar, I had been waiting at the army office for hours, since I did not know when exactly the convoy would return.

When I saw my brother disembark alone I knew something was amiss. He told us about what had happened to our parents. I was devastated.

Later he also told us about how Major Ram Singh had lost his life and my grief was compounded. I shuddered at the thought of the pain of the family of the young soldier who had laid his life in the line of duty. There was so much sorrow all around as a new country was being born.

Over the years, I have often admired the courage and sacrifice of the unsung Major Ram Singh who led from the front and took the first bullet, when rescuing some helpless refugees.

So as India celebrates its 66th Independence Day on Thursday, it is also time to salute all those who lost their lives, in creating it. Let us hope the memory of their sacrifices, will spur us to build a strong and honest country.

Hari Chand Aneja is a 91-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work