A Pakistani YouTube channel is helping to reunite Indian and Pakistani relatives separated during the turbulent partition that split both countries in 1947.
After the British left the Indian subcontinent following a 200-year rule, the region was divided into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.
This historic period saw millions leave their homes and relocate to one of the two newly formed countries. Historians estimate the number of people displaced was between 14 and 20 million, while up to two million are believed to have died in the ensuing violence.
To help reunite these people, Nasir Dhillon and Bhupinder Singh Lovely launched a Facebook page seven years ago. Word quickly spread and soon the page evolved into the Punjabi Lehar YouTube channel, which, at the time of writing, has 587,000 subscribers.
"Lehar" translates to wave in Urdu.
The two Pakistani YouTubers, both partners in a property firm, help trace missing relatives and their ancestral homes through their platform.
“Our main objective is to bridge the gap between the people of both nations who became lost in the partition’s riots,” says Mr Dhillon, who lives in Faisalabad, a city 300 kilometres away from Pakistan's capital Islamabad.
"The relatives can upload whatever information and photos they have about the missing persons following which we leverage our network on both sides of the border to trace them. So far, we’ve helped reunite 300 families."
Mr Dhillon, 37, says his decade working as an officer with the Punjab Police has also helped him hone his skills in tracing missing persons.
However, inspiration for the project actually came to him from his late grandfather who would narrate tragic stories of families torn apart by the partition, including his own.
“My grandfather was from Tarn Taran village in India’s Punjab state. But he was one among hordes who migrated to Pakistan. As a boy, I’d listen mesmerised to his narrations of the partition days, how he missed his relatives and friends from the village and how nice it’d be if someone could reunite them. This gave me the idea to launch Punjabi Lehar,” explains Mr Dhillon.
The father-of-three says he too is keen to explore his roots and visit his ancestral village “if the Indian government provides me a visa”. But, until that happens, he says he’s happy to reunite dozens of other families tormented by a cruel period of history.
Punjabi Lehar’s biggest success story has been that of reuniting two elderly brothers in Kartarpur, the Sikh pilgrimage in Pakistan, after a 74-year separation. The Indian government reopened the 4.1km Kartarpur Corridor in November 2021 after it was shut in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A bilateral diplomatic pact between the two countries allows Indian pilgrims of all faiths to undertake round-the-year visa-free travel through the passage.
“The corridor links Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan, the final resting place of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, with the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district in India’s Punjab state. The reopening of the corridor has made our task of reuniting families easier,” says Mr Dhillon.
The emotional meeting of Saddique Khan, 84, from Pakistan’s Punjab region and his brother Sikka Khan, 76, from India’s Punjab state, lasted more than one hour before the siblings returned to their respective homes.
The video of the brothers embracing each other and sobbing inconsolably went viral, garnering millions of views. Dhillon says that many teary-eyed viewers were so moved by the reunion they personally contacted them to find out about their well-being.
“We’re so grateful to the governments of both countries for opening the Kartarpur Corridor,” Sikka Khan said, speaking on the phone from Pakistan in a voice choked with emotion.
He said he is currently staying with his brother and his "prosperous” family of four sons and two daughters in Pakistan and has never been happier.
“No one can replace family," says Mr Khan. "These are blood ties. I never married and live alone in India, so being in my brother’s thriving household resonating with laughter and children’s banter is something I’ve only dreamt of. I can’t thank Punjabi Lehar enough for facilitating this fairy tale family reunion."
Another recent happy reunion was that of Mumtaz Bibi, 69, who lives in India, and her sister Gulabo, 71, who settled in Pakistan’s Punjab region.
The sisters were very young when they became separated. Gulabo was taken to Pakistan by her uncles, while Mumtaz remained in India with her mother, who was tragically killed in a robbery.
Depressed and lonely, the latter craved to meet her long lost family. Finally, with Mr Dhillon’s help, the two sisters met.
Mumtaz even stayed with Gulabo’s family for two weeks in her Pakistani home delighted to be surrounded by her near and dear ones.
At a time when relations between neighbours India and Pakistan remain acrimonious at best, platforms such as Punjab Lehar offer a glimmer of hope to families who have already lost so much.