14 January 2020
August 1947 ‘Kill the Kafirs, burn them alive. No Hindu or Sikh should be spared . . .’ Hate-filled directives echoed in the Valley as young and old Muslim men ran through the narrow streets of Tadali village in Muzaffarabad, Kashmir, with naked, bloodstained swords in their hands. The village was to become part of Pakistan post Partition. The vicious venom being spewed by the local mullahs had brainwashed the Muslim youth almost overnight and filled them with hatred towards communities of other religions. With no regulatory body to be afraid of, the fundamentalists went on killing sprees with full gusto. It was as if some evil force had swished a magic wand and turned friends and immediate neighbours into arch-enemies. They sprinted out of their homes like pit bulls freed from chains and filled the Valley with the blood of innocents, leaving a burning trail of houses in their wake. They marched on to the streets like wild beasts, displaying human skulls as trophies on the tips of their spears and swords. The Sikhs provoked the ire of the fundamentalists even more.
Being entrepreneurs, they had earned respect and jealousy in equal proportions. Despite being limited in number, they dominated all of Punjab and firmly held the purse strings of the important businesses. Even though Muslims benefited the most from their entrepreneurial skills, they remained discontent. They had been waiting for an opportunity to strike back. The word ‘Jihad’ acquired a new meaning. Instead of being a spiritual struggle to overcome ego, greed and lust, it was wrongly interpreted as the Prophet’s directive to wage wars against non-Muslims and used to justify the killing of innocent people. One Sikh family that suffered the most at their hands was that of Balwant Singh. Being the eldest of four brothers, Balwant had successfully expanded the business and taken it to great heights. Nearly one-third of the village population was under his direct or indirect employment. His palatial home was famously known as ‘Sardar House’, and he was treated no less than a king. He was a large-hearted man and gave soft loans to anyone in distress without discriminating on the basis of caste or creed, or worrying about returns. Spiritually inclined, Balwant donated a fixed percentage of his income to noble causes every month and took good care of anyone who knocked on his door.
Yet, the Muslim clergy nursed a serious grudge against him. His big white house stood out like a sore thumb primarily for one reason — his school for the underprivileged. Balwant enjoyed generous patronage of the local British administrators and, as a result, was permitted to run a prominent ‘girls only’ school in the Valley. The school encouraged poor children, including Muslim girls, to study free of cost which became a bone of contention for the religious leaders who were of the opinion that educating Muslim girls was against the teachings of the Quran. However, over a period of time, the school gained a name for its good governance, discipline and education. Despite being located in a Muslim area, it boasted a high percentage of Muslim students, which the fundamentalists found difficult to digest, and thus they opposed it vehemently.
But the wealthy and powerful Balwant brushed their objections aside each time and kept them at a safe distance. They were enraged by the snub but also scared to stand up to the powerful sardar and hence sulked in isolation. The British administration was uncompromising when it came to rules. Punishments for disobedience and violence were severe and dispensed quickly. Hence, whenever the pitch of their murmur rose above the acceptable decibel level, Balwant reminded them of the Riot Act. But his trust in the British administration was his undoing. He was unaware of the level of hatred that was brewing in the minds of the imams, moulvis and other fundamentalists.
The sudden announcement of Partition brought all these feelings to the fore, and without the British police to regulate the town, they wreaked vengeance. Their leaders used loudspeakers in masjids to spew hatred. The volcano of hate exploded and the burning lava flowed in the direction of the Sardar House. It took Balwant by complete surprise and engulfed his entire family. This was hard for Balwant to digest. Even in his wildest dreams, he had not imagined that his own Muslim friends, especially those who had taken umpteen favours and had sworn by him, would lead a riotous mob in the direction of his house. They were holding weapons, hurling abuses and baying for his blood.