Abida Amin Khawaja remembers that during Partition, her mother was separated from the rest of the family. “We had no news about our mother’s whereabouts for the next two months. We didn’t know whether she was dead or alive,” she says.
Abida Amin Khawaja was born in 1936 to a Punjabi and Saraiki-speaking household in Multan, South Punjab. Her father, Mushtaq Ahmed Gurmani, of the Gurmani Baloch tribe, was prime minister of Bahawalpur State and member of the Punjab Assembly before Partition, while her maternal uncle, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, went on to become the fifth president of India in 1974.
Mrs. Khawaja shared a very close bond with her father, and credits him for developing her interest in politics and activism from a very early age. Mrs. Khawaja says that he left his duties in Bahawalpur to attend to the British-Indian government’s request to set up rehabilitation programs for war veterans returning to India during the Second World War. “He’d set up several welfare programs and technical schools to help the veterans readjust to civilian life,” she says.
In January 1947, Mrs. Khawaja’s father was approached by Jinnah and advised to return to Bahawalpur in order to ensure that the State of Bahawalpur was ceded to Pakistan after Partition, she recounts. “I also remember seeing heated debates between my father and maternal uncle about [the fates of] India and Pakistan,” she says.
In August 1947, Mrs. Khawaja and her sisters returned to Delhi after their summer holidays to resume school, while their mother stayed behind in Shillong upon insistence from her maternal grandmother. “Back in school, I began to feel a lot of animosity from [my peers], and the whole school environment had changed,” she says. “Suddenly we were being treated as strangers in our own school. My father, upon seeing the situation in Delhi, told us that we need to leave for Multan immediately. He took us to the railway station. We were quite excited about the journey. We were planning to have delicious food at the various railway stations on the way so we didn’t eat anything after the sunset call to prayer. We had no idea about we were headed into.”
Mrs. Khawaja remembers terror and fear around her at the Delhi railway station. “The moment we boarded the first train, we were engulfed in it,” she says. “It was a humid August evening. We were told to keep the windows of our berth closed and covered, and the lights switched off at all times as we were in grave danger. I was with two of my sisters, and there was one Christian lady with us. She told us to stay quiet at all times. We were told that there are miscreants roaming all over the place and they may attack us if we make a noise.”
The night’s journey on train from Delhi to Lahore was spent in fear and silence. They reached Lahore railway station in the morning. “Someone brought us old loaves of bread and eggs to eat, but I insisted to get puri halwa from one of the best places in Lahore and everyone looked at me in surprise and shock,” Mrs. Khawaja says. “I started noticing the women who were coming in and going out of the train. They were in a state of panic and anxiety, and there were dead bodies scattered outside.”
The train finally came and Mrs. Khawaja recounts it to be covered in blood and mutilated bodies. “My hair still stands on end at the thought of those horrifying scenes,” she says. That train was sent to the yard to get washed and they waited for another train. The station master did not allow them to board that train either. “We’d learnt that miscreants were planning to attack that train at the junction near Khanakasa,” she says. “We boarded the third train, and when we passed by Khanakasa, we saw many dead bodies at the junction and the horror of it was indescribable.”
An hour after crossing Khanakasa, their train was stopped. “We’d learnt that miscreants are waiting to attack their train at Sahiwal,” she says. “We waited for the army to find our train and resume our journey under their supervision. We were in the midst of a dense forest and had nothing to eat or to drink. The army came for us after four hours of waiting.”
By the time Mrs. Khawaja had reached her village, no one knew of their arrival. They were somehow discovered by their paternal uncle who was in the village attending to some business. “He took us to our grandmother’s house,” she says. “Our grandmother was naturally upset to see us in a tattered state. We had no news about our mother’s whereabouts for the next two months. We didn’t know whether she was dead or alive. We’d be glued to the radio at the time when names of incoming migrants were announced,” she says.
Mrs. Khawaja was reunited with her mother during mid-October 1947. “I heard a motorized vehicle arriving in the village,” she says. “It turned out to be her and my maternal aunt.” After reuniting with their mother, Mrs. Khawaja and her siblings moved back to their own residence in the village. In 1948, after Bahawalpur became part of Pakistan, her father joined Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s cabinet as minister for Kashmir affairs, and came to be with his family.
Mrs. Khawaja staged a play in her village to raise funds to settle migrant families from Ajmer and helped raise money for a migrant woman to start her own business in Lahore. “We saw her begging for alms at Anarkali,” she says. “We pitched in savings from our monthly pocket money and collected hundred rupees for her startup.” Mrs. Khawaja taught Urdu at a private college for several years. She married an engineer and former soldier in the British-Indian army from Delhi who migrated to Lahore during the census, in 1956. Mrs. Khawaja and her husband have three sons and a daughter, and Mrs. Khawaja’s husband passed away in 2010.
Today, Mrs. Khawaja oversees activities and operations of the Gurmani Foundation with her sons and daughter. In 2014, she inaugurated the renaming ceremony of the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). She lives with her immediate family in Lahore.
Her message to the future generations is to be aware of what is happening in the world. “People are not aware of what is going on. Nobody can take us for a ride if we know what is happening internationally,” she says.
This interview was conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.