The Railways and Partition

Trains, used to transport refugees across the border, were packed to capacity (1947-10-24) by The Railway Gazette “Refugee Travel between India and Pakistan”, 24 October 1947 (From the personal collection of Deborah Nixon)Partition Museum

Railways: The Dumbwaiters of Partition

The Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 resulted in the forced migration of millions of people across the newly drawn borders between India and Pakistan. Trains were one of the most common modes of transport, and it is estimated that 700,000 refugees travelled by train between 15 August 1947 and 8 September 1947 alone. To meet the demand of transporting large numbers of people migrating across the borders, both passenger and goods trains were used. The uncertainty surrounding the exact boundaries that were to be drawn and the helplessness felt by those who lost their homes and livelihoods,saw people relying on prayer and faith for the strength to endure the trials ahead of them. 

Refugees chose to sit on train roofs, instead of waiting (c. 1947) by Courtesy Centre for South Asian Studies, University of CambridgePartition Museum

Trains were packed to capacity, with people choosing to sit on the roof of the carriages rather than waiting for the next train. Space was precious and people were often able to carry only limited belongings with them.

Trains, used to transport refugees across the border, were packed to capacity (1947-10-24) by The Railway Gazette “Refugee Travel between India and Pakistan”, 24 October 1947 (From the personal collection of Deborah Nixon)Partition Museum

Every inch of space that was available, whether between the carriages or atop the trains, was utilised by those migrating across the newly drawn borders.

Report regarding train running on Eastern Punjab Railway in 1947 (1947-11) by Government of India, Ministry of RailwaysPartition Museum

The governments prioritized refugee special trains over regular train services, often providing military escorts to protect against attacks.

"Four single trains left Jullundur City for Lahore with 3,900, 4,000, 3,800 and 4,200, Muslim refugees, total 15,900"

Newspaper Report of trains being held up in West Punjab (1947-08-25) by Hindustan TimesPartition Museum

The train journeys were fraught with danger as they were attacked and looted with ever increasing frequency.

"People wishing to travel between Delhi and Lahore should note that railway journey through the intervening territories is wholly insecure..."

Rajinder Singh recalls hiding under a train seat while mobs were attacking (2017-01-10) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

Rajinder Singh migrated from Kahuta, Pakistan. He recalls how their train was attacked en route to India and people were pulled out of the train and killed. He managed to survive by hiding under the seats of the train.

Chaudhri Mohammed Siddiq recalls his journey While migrating in 1947 (Unknown) by Dr. Ishtiaq AhmedPartition Museum

Chaudhri Mohammed Siddiq migrated from Amritsar to Lahore by train, and remembers dead bodies strewn all around the tracks. He lived in Wadi Gali Araiyan Di, in Amritsar, until they were forced to leave on 12/13 August 1947. Courtesy Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed

Md. Nur Recalls hiding in a train while he saw violence perpetrated on Muslims (2017-11) by Ravi Thakran CollectionPartition Museum

Md. Nur Hossain migrated from India to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by train. He remembers seeing Muslims being stripped and murdered.
Courtesy Ravi Thakran Collection

Newspaper Report on trains being the main target of rioters in West Punjab (1947-08-27) by Hindustan TimesPartition Museum

Trains carrying refugees between the two nations were regularly attacked by rioting mobs. People were looted and killed. There were reports of entire trains that were slaughtered by the time they reached their destination.

Captain Mohan Singh Kohli Recalls travelling by a goods train during Partition (2018-03-15) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

Captain M.S. Kohli, the internationally renowned mountaineer, recalls the attack on their goods train while travelling to India. They were saved by the timely arrival of Brigadier Ayub Khan, who was his father's friend, and who later became the President of Pakistan.

A report from The Tribune detailing the attack on a train from Bannu (1948-02-04)Partition Museum

A train with approximately 3000 refugees started from Bannu (NWFP) on 10 January 1948 and was attacked at Gujrat Station on 11 January 1948. Hundreds of people were killed and injured. A report on the attack in The Tribune from 4 February 1948.

The Tribune reports on the Prime Minister's response to the questions raised on the train attack at Gujrat Station.

Surinder Singh recalls received 5 bullet injuries in mob attacks on trains (2017-12-27) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

Surinder Singh was on the train that was attacked on 11 January 1948, at Gujrat Station. He received 5 bullet injuries but survived.

Utensils brought across by Sudershana Kumari's siblings during Partition (Early 20th century) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

Remnants of a Lost Home 

Women and children were often sent to safer places in the months leading up to Partition. Families could carry limited belongings due to a paucity of space. People chose to bring across valuables, items of daily use or objects that held sentimental value and reminded them of a life left behind. Sudershana Kumari was 8 years old when Partition happened. When the violence started, her parents decided to send her siblings ahead to the other side of the border by train, with the few valuables that the family owned. Her mother fit everything that she thought was worth saving from her house into a trunk. This included the "kangni wala glass" and cooking pot. Serving milk or "lassi" in this glass was seen as a mark of respect while the cooking pot, like Ashoka's pillar, did not rust. 

Phulkari Coat brought across by Pritam Kaur during Partition (Early 20th century)Partition Museum

Phulkari Coat

As was the norm for arranged marriages, 30 year old Bhagwan Singh Maini and 22 year old Pritam Kaur had been introduced to each other, in 1947. He was from Mianwali and she from Gujranwala. But during the mayhem of Partition their families lost contact. Three of Bhagwan Singh's brothers were killed while fleeing from West Punjab. Concerned about her safety, Pritam Kaur's family put her on a train to Amritsar. She travelled with her two year old brother on her lap. After reaching the railway station, she made her way to the closest refugee camp. It was in the long, winding queue for food where hungry, weary, desolate refugees stood for hours, that Bhagwan Singh and Pritam Kaur met again. Bhagwan Singh's mother and Pritam Kaur's family decided to get the couple married. When Pritam Kaur crossed the border with a bag slung across her shoulder, she had this Phulkari coat among her few precious possessions- a small comfort in her traumatic sojourn, and a reminder of happier days. 

A Pidhi Brought Across by Haratosh Chatterjee, inscribed with his grandfather's initials (c. Late 19th century to early 20th century)Partition Museum

This Pidhi (a wooden seat) is approximately 100 years old. It was brought across the border when Haratosh Chatterjee's family migrated from East Pakistan by train (now Bangladesh), in 1949.

The Pidhi held emotional value for Haratosh Chatterjee as his grandfather's initials (Gou) were inscribed on the back of pidhi.

Members of the Gurkha Regiment protecting a train (c. 1947) by From the personal collection of Deborah NixonPartition Museum

Guardians of the Railways

Various regiments of the army and the police had to be brought in to ensure the safe passage of the trains that were transporting refugees during Partition. In this communally charged environment, an important role was played by the Gurkha Regiment, which was considered to be neutral in nature. 

A letter by an officer of the Gurkha Regiment (1947)Partition Museum

A letter written by an officer of the Gurkha Regiment requesting trucks to transport refugees across the border.
"The situation is now very serious in this area. I am afraid we have got to pinch six of your trucks to collect [ ] from PALAMPUR."

A letter by an officer of the Gurkha Regiment (1947)Partition Museum

"Harrington is evacuating 1000 Refugees from Jawalamukhi and has been told to get six of your trucks. Tell him he must wait until we have got these [-] from Palampur.
P.P.S. There's a heck of a fire in Nagrota, tell NICK to keep his trucks well under control, he may meet trouble on the way."

B.K. Chaudhary recalls his train experience when migrating to India (2017-01-29) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

B.K. Chaudhary recounts his experiences on the train while migrating from Multan to Ambala Cantonment. Members of the Gurkha regiment stood atop their bogeys to guard them from being attacked.

Krishen Khanna recalls scenes he saw at Ambala Station (2016) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

Artists and writers were deeply impacted by the Partition and reflected it in their works. Trains and railway stations, in particular, depicted the chaos and fear of the times.

Krishen Khanna painted the sights he saw at Ambala railway station during Partition. He remembers that artists were constantly asked why they did not paint about the Partition at the time, and Krishen Khanna recalls that it was survival that was primary for everyone, and they rarely thought about anything else.

A Krishen Khanna painting based on the families he saw waiting at Ambala Station by Krishen KhannaPartition Museum

In the years following Partition, Krishen Khanna painted the sights he saw at Ambala Railway station in 1947. He remembers the desperation and fear of the women waiting at the station for their menfolk who were yet to arrive from across the border.

A close-up of Krishen Khanna's painting showing anxious faces waiting for their loved ones and people relieved at finally being united.

Cover of "Train to Pakistan" by Khushwant Singh, recounting the Partition of India (2016) by Published by Penguin, Photograph by Partition MuseumPartition Museum

"Train to Pakistan" is a novel by Khushwant Singh on the Partition. The train's whistle, in Singh's book, which used to indicate the day's beginning for the village changes to one that brings violence and fear. The book was made into a movie and the video shows the trailer.

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