70 years later, a survivor recalls the horror of India-Pakistan partition

She witnessed the murder of her uncle and his family

Sudershana Kumari. (Vidhi Doshi/The Washington Post)

Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Vidhi Doshi. Swati Gupta contributed from New Delhi to this report.

Even as a girl, Sudershana Kumari’s knew she had to stay quiet in order to survive.

Her hiding place: the rooftop in her native town, Sheikhupura. Her mother and dozens of others were with her, watching the carnage on the streets below.

Sudershana Kumari. (Vidhi Doshi/The Washington Post)

Kumari’s family is Hindu; they were living in an area that would soon become Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Families like hers would have to flee.

So Kumari, now 78, did not make a sound for three days.

From the holes in the roof, Kumari saw her uncle and his family being killed by men with spears in the street.

“My aunt was wearing white trousers, I remember,” she says. “She was crying, ‘Don’t kill my son, don’t kill my son.’ Then they took her daughter from her. They took her, and they pierced the spear through her body. She died like that, a 1-year-old girl.”

Kumari’s family scattered. Her town had been reduced to ash and rubble. For days, she and her mother hid from rioters who were looking for Hindus to kill and loot.

Eventually, they made their way to India, where they became refugees — penniless, homeless strangers in a strange land.

In this September 1947 photo, Muslim refugees, evacuated from areas of unrest in New Delhi, take shelter in the corners of the ancient walls of Purana Qila, the old fort, in New Delhi, India. (AP)

The partition of India

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the partition of India, an event that triggered one of bloodiest upheavals in human history.

  • About 14 million people are thought to have abandoned their homes in the summer and fall of 1947, when colonial British administrators began dismantling the empire in southern Asia.
  • Estimates of the number of people killed in those months range between 200,000 and 2 million.
Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan, a country that would be Muslim-controlled. Muslims in modern-day India fled in the opposite direction.

The legacy of that violent separation has endured, resulting in a bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan.

“When they partitioned, there were probably no two countries on Earth as alike as India and Pakistan,” said Nisid Hajari, the author of “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition.” “Leaders on both sides wanted the countries to be allies, like the U.S. and Canada are. Their economies were deeply intertwined, their cultures were very similar.”
In this September 1947 photo, Muslim refugees clamber aboard an overcrowded train near New Delhi in an attempt to flee India. (AP)

The bloody result

After partition was announced, the subcontinent descended quickly into riots and bloodshed.

Neighbors slaughtered neighbors; childhood friends became sworn enemies.

  • Bungalows and mansions were burned and looted.
  • Women were raped, children were killed in front of their siblings.
  • “Blood trains” carrying refugees between the two new nations arrived full of corpses; their passengers had been killed by mobs en route.

Open and honest history

Archives on both sides have collected video and oral testimonies of the horrors. A partition museum will open this week in the Indian city of Amritsar, containing items that were brought over from Pakistan by refugees.

But outside southern Asia, the brutalities of partition were not widely broadcast.

One reason, Hajari says, may be because of how the events were depicted by British sources.

“At the time, there was an impetus to portray the moment of independence as a triumph — that after 200 years of colonial rule, the British could part as friends. If you emphasize the death and violence, that tarnishes the achievement,” he said.

The second reason, he said, it may be because Indians and Pakistanis themselves still find it difficult to discuss those horrors openly and honestly.

“It is still hard to understand why those things happened. Why did that temporary insanity take over?”

70 years later

Years later, Kumari had nothing left from those years besides a small box she stole from her burning town, thinking it could be used for her dolls to sleep in.

That and her memories. She fills notebooks with poems about those years.

One of them reads:

Mind, don’t dwell on things of the past
What do you get from it?
Your eyes will have to cry.
Your eyes will have to stay awake all night.
Your eyes will have to cry.
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