‘We’re together at last’: separated families reunite after seven decades | India

It was a hug that held the pain and longing of 74 years. As 75-year-old Sikka Khan fell into the arms of his elder brother Sadiq Khan, now in his 80s, the couple wept with grief and joy at the same time. It had been more than seventy years since the brothers, torn apart by the horror of partition, had seen each other. With Sikka and Sadiq in India Pakistan, neither knew if the other was alive. But neither of them stopped looking.

But on a frantic January afternoon this year, the couple were reunited at the border that had so devastatingly torn their family apart. “Finally, we are together,” Sadiq told his brother with tears in his eyes.

75 years ago, on August 15, 1947, the continent was divided on religious lines to become two independent countries. India and Pakistan. It was to be a bloody and bitter division. After 300 years of official British presence, the key figures of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi and his protégé and future prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned a unified, secular country. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim political leader, advocated the creation of a separate state for Muslims, fearing the consequences of Hindu-majority India.

As religious tensions flared, deadly riots began targeting Hindus, then Muslims, then Sikhs. Wanting to quickly extricate themselves from India, the British oversaw the drawing of a rough border dividing the Indian provinces of Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east to create a separate Pakistan that angered all communities.

Crowd photo
A visitor to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, India studies a photo of a crowd during partition in 1947. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

It fueled mutual genocide on both sides of the new border. Entire villages were burned, children were massacred, and approximately 75,000 women were raped. In Punjab, the epicenter of the violence, pregnant women had their babies cut from their bellies, and trains full of refugees—Muslims fleeing Indian Punjab, Sikhs and Hindus fleeing western Pakistan—were ambushed and silently arrived at stations littered with bloody corpses.

The actual death toll is still unknown, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 2 million, and it resulted in the largest forced displacement in history, with more than 14 million people forced from their homes. From that point on, India and Pakistan were sworn enemies, divided by a border that would become increasingly fractured and impenetrable for decades.

Sikka Khan holding a picture of his brother Sadiq.
Sikka Khan holding a picture of his brother Sadiq. Photo: Hannah Ellis-Petersen/The Guardian

Caught up in the chaos and brutality, families were forced to leave everything behind, and many were separated as they crossed into India or Pakistan. Although many later tried to find each other through newspaper ads, letters and messages on notice boards, cross-border contact was limited. Visa restrictions and a deep-rooted fear of “the other side” also prevented many from crossing the border.

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

Video accounts and fragments of information are placed on the pages: a photo or a name, a description of a village or a house. As posts are widely shared by people on both sides of the border and the diaspora around the world, they sometimes become leaders. While it is still difficult to get a visa to cross the border, video calls have been arranged for people to see the homes and villages they were forced to leave long ago.

Sadiq talks to Sikka on video call
Sadiq Khan (on screen) talks to his younger brother Sikka (right) on a video call. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

“For those who lived through Partition, the longing for their origins remains very strong,” said Aanchal Malhotra, who has spent years documenting the oral history of Partition.

“One of the things I hear most often in my research is ‘When I close my eyes, I see my home’ or ‘Every night I cross the border in my sleep.’ Most people are resigned to never seeing their homes again. But the great power of social media is that it has no borders, and it’s great to see how it’s being used in India, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh, to connect people to a past they thought they’d lost.”

Makhu Devi, 87, who lives in Indian-controlled Kashmir, said a Facebook group recently gave him a new lease of life after connecting him with relatives in his old village, which he is still forced to flee, now in Pakistan. . Now they have regular phone calls, although the first few times everyone barely spoke because they were crying so much. “My memory is being refreshed,” said Devi of the bells. “They brought me back to those times. I feel as young and energetic as I was then.”

Makhu Devi, 87, calls with her family in Pakistan.
Makhu Devi, 87, calls with her family in Pakistan. Photo: Aakash Hassan

Second and third generations have also embraced social media groups to connect with ancestors, which are often not discussed in families amid the widespread culture of silence surrounding partition. Cross-border communication lines have been opened in innovative ways, including through dating apps. To see what people look like on Instagram now, it’s become common for people to search hashtags of the towns or villages their grandparents came from and find people who still live there.

Muhammad Naveed on his computer
Muhammad Naveed, team member of Pakistani YouTuber Nasir Dhillon’s channel Punjabi Lehar. Photo: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty

Punjab Lehar, a YouTube channel founded by 38-year-old Nasir Dhillon, a real estate salesman from Faisalabad Punjab, Pakistan, has recorded nearly 800 videos helping people reconnect with a person or place lost in the crossfire. According to his estimates, 300 have led to face-to-face meetings between loved ones separated by the India-Pakistan border.

Dhillon grew up hearing his family and village elders talk longingly about ancestral villages they could no longer visit, and began using social media to share their stories and gather information. But after his posts and videos started going viral, “the response was so great that I realized it was the story of the whole of Punjab.”

“Whatever I do is because of my roots,” Dhillon said. “We may live in two hostile countries, but our hearts are still before division.” I pray that there will never be such a division anywhere in the world – it is a cruel thing.”

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His biggest regret is not being able to take his father, who passed away in 2018, to his ancestral shrine in India, which he finally found thanks to social media. “He was dying to see his native village till his last days,” said Dhillon. He has not been able to visit it yet; India rejected his visa application last year.

It was thanks to Dhillon’s channel that the Khan brothers found each other again. Born to a Muslim family in what is now India’s Punjab, Sikka was just six months old when the violence of partition broke out. He and his mother were forced to take refuge with a local Sikh family who protected their Muslim neighbors from massacres outside the home.

After a week of carnage, they emerged, but terrible scenes. The nearby river was so full of corpses that it ran red with blood. In the village of Jagraon, 40 miles away from Sikka, there were no Muslims left; There is no sign of Sikka’s father, 10-year-old brother or eight-year-old sister. Sikka’s mother drowned herself in grief. Sikka had no family left except a penniless uncle and was brought up by a Sikh family from his mother’s village.

He spent his entire adult life searching for news from his family, especially his beloved brother Sadiq. I made speculative calls and wrote hundreds of letters to unknown addresses in Pakistan to no avail. I have never married; without family around him, he said, “something is always missing, so it never feels right.”

Sikka Khan on his phone
Sikka Khan (centre) talks to his older brother Sadiq on a mobile phone video call in Pakistan. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

In 2019, a friend from the village was accidentally sent a YouTube video of Punjabi Lehar by a relative. There, an 80-year-old man living in Pakistan talked about trying to find his younger brother, who he lost after fleeing Jagraon village during partition. After contacting Dillon, it was confirmed: the man was Sadiq Khan.

An emotional video call was arranged between the two brothers and soon they started talking to each other every day. Sikka eventually learned his family’s story; said that his father was killed in a communal attack, and his brother and sister fled to a refugee camp on the border where his sister died of an illness. Sadiq reached Pakistan, settled in Faisalabad and had six children and several grandchildren, but there was never a day when he did not think of his missing brother.

Visa problems and the Covid pandemic prevented the brothers from meeting for nearly three years, but in January a meeting was finally arranged at the Kartarpur Corridor, a religious pilgrimage site open to Indians and Pakistanis. “I felt complete,” Sikka said of the matchup. Both brothers agreed: they had survived long enough to meet again.

In April, Sikka finally got a visa to stay in Pakistan for three months, and Sadiq returned 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 eventually find her a wife.

“Now I am not worried about anything,” said Sikka. “I just want to see my brother and be close to him.” But, Sikka added, he was also angry. “Why did they divide this country and divide my family? There are still so many people who can’t find their families or can’t get a visa to cross the border. I was lucky.”

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