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[Chalice] Growing Up as a Muslim in India [Chalice]
During the Partition

Presented November 27, 2011, by Dr. Zakiah Ali

Listen to a recording of "Growing Up as a Muslim in India During the Partition"
32:04 minutes - 12.8 MB - Growing Up as a Muslim in India During the Partition .mp3 file.

The partition of India ranks beyond a doubt as one of the 10 greatest tragedies of human history. The division was a Muslim India and a Non Muslim India.

While the majority of people believed that Mohamed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League bear a heavy responsibility, history shows that 16 years prior to 1947, one of the chief mentors of the Hindu Congress formulated the 2 nation theory.

Large populations of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and the Christians found themselves on the wrong side of the border. The impact was tremendous and the trauma of the partition has left an indelible stain not only on Indo-Pakistan relations, but also upon the lives of millions of Pakistanis and Indians.

This partition of India was the process of dividing the subcontinent along sectarian lines. Although the Muslim League (ML) was formed in opposition to the Indian National Congress ( INC ), and the British government attempted to play the INC and the ML off one another, the two political parties generally cooperated in their mutual goal of getting Britain to QUIT INDIA.

The ML and the INC supported sending Indian Volunteer troops to fight on Britain's behalf in WWI and WWII. In exchange for the services of more than a million Indian soldiers, the people of India expected political concessions up to and including independence. However no such concessions were offered.

In 1919 the Amritsar massacre occurred where almost 2000 people were killed by the British army, while the unarmed people celebrated the festival of harvests. This inhuman action by the British on the people of India, caused many independent and apolitical people to join the INC or the ML.

In the wealthy and fertile region of Punjab, the problem was extreme with a nearly equal mixture of Hindus and Muslims. Neither group wanted to move, and the sectarian hatred ran high. It is a shame at this time of unrest almost a million people lost their lives, including some of my older cousins who were titled " Lions of Delhi" and received medals of honour. Let me now ask you to lend me your imagination. I will talk about my childhood. Not too far from Hyderabad in the Deccan plateau of India, is a smaller town called Kurnool, where my maternal home still stands, although now it is converted into a school. The river Hendri runs through it and while it is dry most of the year, it can have raging floods within days of some rain. We spent hundreds of hours on its banks, playing in the dark black clay, me and my friends- Hindus and Muslims.

Some of us can remember early childhood details. My memories are vibrant, of a little girl, very fat, with frilled skirts that mother had made. In her ankles, silver anklets and tiny bells, that went chun chun chun every time she took a step.

Kurnool had only one elementary school for girls. Everyone went there. Muslim girls and Hindu girls. Two of my friends were Hindus..Saroja and Saraswati. We were always at each other's home. While they at my home often, I remember that I never ate any food in their homes. One day, I was at Saraswati's house. I saw her in the kitchen with her mother. There were a couple of steps that led up to the kitchen. I started climbing these steps and was about to cross the threshold to be with her, when suddenly there were screams and cries from her father and grandparents, yelling to stop me from setting my pudgy feet with their silver anklets into the kitchen. I was terrified as I was unceremoniously lifted and brought down into the lower section and the courtyard. Saraswati told me later, that I came from an unclean and impure people. My stepping into the kitchen would have had major consequences, with days of penance and complete washing of the entire house. Much later mother had explained to me about the caste system among the Hindus--- and I being a Muslim, was worse than the lowest of the four classes among the hindu system. I had retaliated and asked mother why she allowed my Hindu friends to come to our home and eat with us and walk around the entire haveli ( mansion ) as if they belonged there. " We are Muslims; we do not have separate rooms assigned in the house for worship to one God for food, and another for wealth, and yet another for music or what have you"!

A few months later, after the partition, these same friends asked me, " why are you and your parents still here? You should move to Pakistan where you belong."! Now I know that they couldn't have said that from their hearts. I am sure the folks in their homes had discussed about us, and therefore the question. I continues to be their friend until they moved away from our mostly Mulsim town. Their words stuck like little shards in some corner of my heart and even today, they bring a frown to my face. We had all gone to the same school, learned the same principles of education, and yet even the small kids had such great differences in the beliefs of friendship.

Our family was well known, and so every evening there would be friends who would come over and discuss many things including politics. Father had walked the streets in support of the Indian Independence whenever Gandhi or Nehru came to the town. After the independence, we continued to have people stop by and talk about the unrest that followed the independence.

Across the Hendri river, the unrest between the Hindus and the Muslims was more severe . . . especially in a town called Hyderabad, a princely state where the Nizam ruled. Many Muslim localities would be cordoned off and the entire place set on fire, with absolutely no way out for the residents. Every week father would take us to the train station to bid farewell to some friends who would migrate to Pakistan. Some times we never knew if these people ever reached their destination. I am sure it had to have hurt father a lot to say goodbye to his friends. I think if he could have torn the love of education and all the schools and the colleges that he had founded, perhaps he would have migrated too. But I never heard him say anytime that he was sorry to have stayed back. Many of his friends were arrested because they were Muslims, and the government feared that some of the unrest was because of their impact on society. {not unlike the current atmosphere here} Anybody of any importance in town, seen openly in a large Muslim group was taken into custody, because they ( the govt officials) thought that they would be instigating some mischief and be the cause of a riot.

I remember one day I was playing outside the main door cooking fake foods in small pots and pans. I had a couple of servant kids with me and then I saw a car stop by our front door. A man asked if my father was at home. I told the man that he had gone to the college and that he would come home only for lunch. When the car left the house, I ran into the house and told my mother that there was a police car that had come and had asked for father.

I think my mother must have been in her mid or late twenties. Although I never thought that my mother could ever have been young! She pretended to ignore my prattling. After about half hour or so she called me and asked if I knew the road to the college. Of course I knew. All I had to do was to get out on to the street and just when I would see the rived Hendri, as it curved around the Arabic college, which my grandfather had founded, and there I would turn right, and the Osmania college which my grandfather and uncle and father had founded was not too far from there. She was satisfied with my explanation. Then she told me, " Zakiah, there are no male servants at home now and your brothers are in school. I don't know why that police officer came looking for your father. I want you to go to the college now, and go up to his office and see how he is doing and see if he has people around him. You just tell him that you came by to see him. You do not tell him anything else." Me, five or six years old! Would I ever have sent my child of that age to go across North Wilmar to my neighbour's home? I think not. But times were different then. Every person the length and breadth of the streets knew their kids and it was always safe for us to be out playing. There were no cars on the roads. People used horse drawn carriages or walked. The Hendri river was full of water and mother had made me swear that I wouldn't go anywhere near the water.

Anyhow, mother got me in some decent clothes and I wore the sandals which needed to be buckled around the ankle. They were brown in colour and had a mesh in the front. God they were the coolest foot ware I had ever had. So I started for my dad's office. My anklets with their tiny silver bells dancing 'chun chun chun chun'. On the way, some other girls joined me and I told them that my mother was scared that my father may have to go to jail and so I was going to his college to be with him and protect him. I think by the time I reached the college I had four other girls about my age or slightly older, all walking with me. We would kick a stone on the road and watch how far it went. And because I had the sandals, I would get the next chance to see if I could kick it further. When we reached the college, I told the girls that they could go back.

Father's office was on the main floor, at the end of the corridor. He had a large window that faced the street. I walked into his office and saw him at his desk, and yes there were a couple of other men there too. One of them I recognized as the clerk, but I don't remember who the second person was. To this day, I can see the surprised, look on my father's face at seeing me there. So I had to tell him.

"Abbajan abbajan, ( dearest respected father ) why did the police car come looking for you? Are you going to jail? What will you eat there? Mother is really scared, so she sent me here to find out if you are here or in jail".

Father was never arrested. But we did move from Kurnool and went further South. It appeared that there was more tolerance in Madras (Chennai). It also seemed that the average person was more educated that one in Kurnool or Hyderabad. I missed the Hendri river . . . not only meandered through that town, it also wrapped itself around my heart.

We started studying English in a Convent. Occasionally I would hear some whispers about me being a Muslim. Once or twice I was asked why we had not fled to Pakistan------- and finally one day I got the courage to tell them, "everyone who wanted to go there, has already gone!"

This Muslim thing about me, stayed through the forties and fifties and the sixties, yes even in the medical school. I think it was one of the wars between the two nations, either '65 or '66, and the Hindu and Christian students were angry that Pakistan had won that war. I was one of the six or seven Muslim students in the college. One morning, in a class room written on the black board were these words; " boycott the Muslim students of the college". That did not happen though. But the words lingered in my heart like a burning volcano in the bosom of the earth.

We are the same people. We have the same colour and features, and we speak similar languages. We respect our elders and consider an honour to take care of them; yet we have become different, and we have become rebels. We have to get visas to visit our relatives, which sometimes are declined by each govt.

With long memory and a spirit of vengeance the British decided to leave India, but they did so at such a high price. They divided us. The portioning of one land into a Muslim sector and a Hindu sector!

Do you know there are more Muslims in India that there are in Pakistan? And still the division took place.

I end with some words from my heart.

"I have only one country!
In this wide world, there is a single town on this earth.
I still live there.
I still feel the scent of that earth when the first drops of rain touch it.
I still live in that country, though I am separated from it by oceans and mountains.
I still imagine it as one country.
I still live in that same small town, in a house with my own room, where I laugh and cry,
Where I pour my songs and my sighs,
And have learned to spin my blended yarn of life"

Thank you.

©2011 Dr. Zakiah Ali

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Ali. Dr. Zakiah 2011. Growing Up as a Muslim in India During the Partition, /talks/20111127.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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