Here are 75 stories to mark the 75th Anniversary of the partition of India. These moving, and inspirational, life stories document the fascinating facts and the first hand evocative experiences of the people of undivided Panjab. These 75 handpicked stories are compiled with the aim of making the ordinary, and often less famous, Panjabis all the more worthy of note and thereby enabling us as readers to fully engage with them to comprehend, if we can, the unseen side of history.
The stories teach us how the partition survivors struggled in life to deal with the tragedy of losing their homes and possessions; moving to a new territory to start from scratch; the myriad emotions they went through for breaking ties with the known and moving into the unknown; thereby making their life stories more human.
21 Saragarhi Sikhs
Sikh history is filled with famous last stands, but one of the best documented was the last stand at the Battle of Saragarhi by 21 Sikhs of the British Indian Army.
Following 1849, British Indian soliders, in particular Purbiyas (east Indians) were promoted to high civilian posts in Panjab. To add further insult to Sikh injury, these Indian soliders would constantly remind the Sikhs that they had defeated the Khalsa Army. The Sikhs felt that the treachory of their leaders coupled with superior British Arms were the cause of their downfall and they began to resent the foreign Indian Purbiyas.
When the Mutiny happened in 1857, the Sikhs decided to side with the British against the Indians and help put down the rebellion. For their support, the British, who were hesitant to raise soldiers from the fiercely independent Sikhs, began to employ Khalsa soldiers in large numbers. Within decades, Sikhs made the backbone of the British Indian Army, making up a quarter of the Indian Army officers despite being less than 2% of the population.
The Battle of Saragarhi took place on the North-West Frontier Province, the volatile border area between British India and Afghanistan, an area formerly controlled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. Despite British suzerainty, the tribal Afghans would attack the area from time to time. To counter this, the British decided to consolidate a series of forts that Ranjit Singh had built in the area nearly 75 years earlier. On 12 September 1897, 10,000 Afghan tribesmen decided to attack a signalling post at the village of Saragarhi to ensure communications would be lost between the forts, therefore ensuring local army units would be isolated and defeated.
Akali Baba Binod Singh Nihang
Very little is known about the man who changed the course of Sikh history in a way few others have.
Binod Singh was a decendent of the 2nd Sikh Guru, Angad and was one of the few armymen of Guru Gobind Singh that accompanied him on his travel south to Nanded in 1708. Binod Singh was one of the 5 council of advisors sent back north with Banda Bahadur to forment rebellion in Panjab and by most accounts was the most senior of those in attendance. He is specifically mentioned by name in the historical text Mahankosh by Kahn Singh Nabha. Binod Singh took part in all the battles fought by Banda Bahadur and commanded the left wing of the Khalsa Army at the Battle of Sirhind in 1710 where the Khalsa forces defeated Wazir Khan and became masters of Panjab.
Nihang oral tradition states that Binod Singh was the first Jathedar (leader) of the Nihang Dal, the Guru's own forces. They also state that Guru Gobind Singh only gave command of the Sikh forces to Banda Bahadur, giving leadership of the Sikh Nation to the Singh Khalsa represented by 5 Singhs, senior amongst those being Binod Singh.
Akali Gurbaksh Singh Nihang
Jammu and Kashmir
Most Sikhs will have heard of 90% of the individuals on this list, but very few have heard about the person ranked fifth. The reason? Akali Gurbaksh Singh's story is lost forever in the shadow of Baba Deep Singh.
Born in 1688, the noted Sikh historian Giani Kirpal Singh mentioned that Gurbaksh Singh was one of the first individuals to recieve initiation into the Khalsa on its founding day in 1699. Very little is known about the life of Gurbaksh Singh, other than he was tutored by Bhai Mani Singh, one of the most illustrious names in Sikh history. Gurbaksh Singh joined the Shaheedan Misl that usually made the vanguard of the Khalsa Army and is reputed to have been involved in most of the major battles with the Afghans and the Mughals.
It was following the death of Deep Singh in 1757 that Gurbaksh Singh came to a position of influence within his Misl. During the Great Sikh Holocaust of 1762, the Afghan leader, Ahmed Shah Abdali had blown up Harimander Sahib, the spiritual centre of Sikhi for the second time in 5 years. In November 1764, the general returned to the plains of Panjab with a force of approximately 30,000 soliders and once again headed toward Amritsar to attack the partially rebuilt Harimander.
The Sikhs, depleted in number since the Holocaust, once again returned to their old tactics of emptying the cities and retreating to the mountains, plundering the invaders during the darkness of night when they would return to their homelands. However, Gurbaksh Singh refused to leave the vicinity of Harimander Sahib. Following in the footsteps of Deep Singh, Gurbaksh Singh decided that he would give his life for Sikhi and that the Sikhs should put up resistence to deliver a psychological blow to the Afghans.
The 30,000 Afghans approached the spiritual home of Sikhi and could scarecely believe their eyes when they saw 30 Sikhs standing guard. What was even more strange about the sight was that it looked like the Singhs were having a celebration. Singing at the top of their voices, Gurbaksh Singh was wearing a garland around his neck dressed as a groom, whilst the other 29 Singhs formed the marriage party that was eagerly courting the bride-death. Unnerved the Mughals approached with caution, however once they came within a musket shot of the Gurdwara, Gurbaksh Singh and his warriors swooped down. It was an incredibly unequal fight but the Sikhs were determined to put on one of the greatest last stands recorded.
Akali Hanuman Singh Nihang
Following the death of Akali Phula, Hanuman Singh became Jathedar of the Budha Dal and leader of the Akali Nihang Singhs.
Hanuman Singh became leader during a period where the power of the Akali Nihang Singh was in decline. After leading the Sikhs through the troubles of the 18th century, they were increasingly seen as outdated and uncontrollable elements within the Sikh State. Unable to control Phula Singh, Ranjit Singh ensured that his predecessor, Hanuman Singh would remain loyal to the state. Nihang Singhs were a constant source of trouble for the Maharaja, not only disrespecting Ranjit Singh repeatedly in public, but also disrespecting British forces whenever they would pass through Panjab, itching to create a situation where they could do battle. The British repeatedly put arrest warrants out for Nihang leaders and pressed the Maharaja to arrest them.
To curtail their power, Ranjit Singh employed the Nihang's on the front line of his army where they would suffer the most casualities. Disgusted by the way his forces were being used, Akali Hanuman Singh withdrew his Nihangs from court intrigues. Although many Nihang Singhs fought in the Anglo-Sikh War under the command of the Sarkar Khalsa, the bulk of the Buddha Dal remained ambivalent. It was only after he was approached by Shaam Singh Attari did Hanuman Singh commit his forces into battle. The Battle of Sabraon was a desperate battle between the depleted Sikh Army and the British, it was also the first time the British came across considerable number of Akali Nihangs.
Akali Phula Singh
Akali Phula Singh Nihang (born Nihang Singh; 1 January 1761 – 14 March 1823) was an Akali Nihang Sikh leader. He was a saint soldier of the Khalsa Shaheedan Misl and head of the Budha Dal in the early 19th century. He was also a senior general in the Sikh Khalsa Army and commander of the irregular Nihang of the army. He played a role in uniting Sikh misls in Amritsar. He was not afraid of the British who at many times ordered for his arrest but were not successful. During his later years he served for the Sikh Empire as a direct adviser to Maharajah Ranjit Singh. He remained an army general in many famous Sikh battles up until his martyrdom in the battle of Naushera. He was admired by the local people and had a great influence over the land and his settlement was always open to help the poor and helpless. He was well known and was a humble unique leader and prestigious warrior with high character. He was also known for his effort to maintain the values of Gurmat and the Khalsa panth.
Akali Phula Singh was born in 1761 in a Jat family, to father Sardar Ishar Singh. After his father's death Akali Phula Singh, who was still young, and his elder brother, Baba Sant Singh, were taken care of by Mahant Balram and under his mother's advice he would then later be taken under the apprentice of Akali Baba Naina Singh, the leader of the Shaheedan Misl, and his Nihang order at Anandpur Sahib. It was from Baba Naina Singh that he would receive initiation into the Khalsa.
Akali Phula Singh memorized the Nitnem (The writings of the Sikh Gurus which are recited daily by a Sikh) at a young age. As a child he would not eat until he completed memorizing a certain portion of the Sikh Guru's writings and in this way he had the Akal Ustat, 33 Savaiye, and other Sri Mukhwak Bani memorized. Around the age of fourteen Akali Phula Singh's mother also passes away leaving him with the dying wishes of being virtuous, upholding dharma, helping the poor, serving the Panth, in the heart being at the refuge of the Guru, being unaffected by Moh, being a role model on the battlefield, and following the footsteps of his ancestors. This had a great impact on Akali Phula Singh who then gave away his land and his possessions to the poor to start to live the life of a Nihang Saint Soldier. He became very close to Akali Naina Singh's jatha at Anandpur Sahib where he completed his martial arts training and fought many battles. As he began to recite Gurbani with a near perfect pronunciation and began to display great dharmic strength he was made the jathedar of the Shaheedan Misl. He did considerable Seva at Anandpur Sahib which included protecting the Gurdwara from thieves and preparation of langar until eventually the Gurdwara was reformed.
Amarajeevi Potti Sreeramulu
Amarajeevi Potti Sreeramulu (16 March 1901 ― 15 December 1952), was an Indian freedom fighter and revolutionary. Sreeramulu is revered as Amarajeevi ("Immortal Being") in the Andhra region for his self-sacrifice for the Andhra cause. He became famous for undertaking a hunger strike for 58 days in support of having separate state for Andhra Pradesh; he died in the process. His death sparked public rioting and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared the intent by the newly liberated nation to form Andhra State three days following the death of Sreeramulu. He contributed his life for the formation of a separate Telugu-speaking state from the dominant Tamil-speaking state of Madras presidency (now Tamil Nadu). His struggles led to the formation of separate Telugu-speaking state called "Andhra Pradesh".
Sriramulu was born to Guravayya and Mahalakshmamma in 1901 at Padamatapalli in a district that once was itself a region within Nellore district. He was born in a Hindu family of Komati caste. Later, their family was shifted to Madras as famine conditions prevailed in this region. They later lived in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh. He completed his high school in Madras and joined the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in Bombay to study sanitary engineering. After his college education, Sreeramulu joined the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, Bombay. In 1929, Sreeramulu lost both his wife and his newborn child. Two years later, he resigned from his job and joined Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram to serve the struggle for Indian Independence.
Sreeramulu took part in the Indian Independence Movement and was imprisoned for participating in the 1930 Salt Satyagraha. Between 1941 and 1942, he participated in the individual satyagraha and the Quit India movement and was imprisoned on three occasions. He was involved in the village reconstruction programmes at Rajkot in Gujarat and Komaravolu in Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh. He joined the Gandhi ashram established by Yerneni Subrahmanyam in Komaravolu. Commenting on Sreeramulu's dedication and fasting ability, Mahatma Gandhi once said, "If only I have eleven more followers like Sreeramulu I will win freedom from British rule in a year.
A formidable civil rights lawyer, Amrit Singh was one of the fiercest U.S. critics of the torture and abuse of prisoners under the Bush Administration. As an ACLU attorney, she litigated cases on torture, indefinite detention and post-9/11 discrimination. She now serves at the Open Society Justice Initiative. Her father is the 13th and current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. Amrit Singh represents a new generation of Sikh women lawyers, wielding the law as sword and shield in the civic battlefield.
She was the leading poet of the subcontinent in the 20th century. She is the first prominent woman Punjabi poet, novelist, and essayist, equally loved on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. With a career spanning six decades, Amrita Pritam produced more than 100 books. She represents the rise of Sikh women in the humanities – writers, artists, filmmakers and scholars.
Anarkali Kaur is a human rights advocate and Senator in Afghanistan. As one of a dwindling population of several thousand Sikhs remaining in war-torn Afghanistan, she fights for the civil rights of minorities and women. When the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, she joined the Grand Council, Loya Jirga, to elect the interim government, and then helped draft the country’s new constitution. She serves as the first non-Muslim woman member in the Lower House of Parliament. In 2009, at 25 years old, she was voted “Person of the Year” by Radio Free Europe’s Afghan chapter, becoming a household name in Kabul. A modern-day “Ma-ee Bhago,” Arnakali Kaur represents the rise of fearless modern-day Sikh warriors.
Aruna Asaf Ali
Aruna Asaf Ali (16 July 1909 – 29 July 1996) was an Indian educator, political activist, and publisher. An active participant in the Indian independence movement, she is widely remembered for hoisting the Indian National flag at the Gowalia Tank maidan, Bombay during the Quit India Movement in 1942. Post-independence, she remained active in politics, becoming Delhi's first Mayor.
Aruna Asaf Ali was born on 16 July 1909 in Kalka, Punjab, British India (now in Haryana, India) into a Bengali Brahmo family. Her father Upendranath Ganguly hailed from Barisal district of Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) but settled in the United Province. He was a restaurant owner. Her mother Ambalika Devi was the daughter of Trailokyanath Sanyal, a renowned Brahmo leader who wrote many Brahmo hymns. Upendranath Ganguly's younger brother Dhirendranath Ganguly (DG) was one of the earliest film directors. Another brother, Nagendranath, was a university professor who married Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore's only surviving daughter Mira Devi. Aruna's sister Purnima Banerjee was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India.
Aruna was educated at Sacred Heart Convent in Lahore and then at All Saints' College in Nainital. After her graduation, she worked as a teacher at the Gokhale Memorial School in Calcutta. She met Asaf Ali, a leader in the Congress party, in Allahabad. They got married in 1928, despite parental opposition on grounds of religion and age (he was a Muslim and her senior by more than 20 years).
My father was no more when Asaf and I married in September 1928. My paternal uncle Nagendranath Ganguly, a university professor who regarded himself as my guardian, said to relatives and friends that as far as he was concerned I was dead and he had performed my shraddh.
Avtar Singh Brahma
Avtar Singh was born in 1951 and joined the Bidhi Chand Dal of Nihangs in 1966 where he learnt the art of Shastar Vidhya as well as Sikh philosophy from the ancient Nihang order. His fame first grew from a wager within the group of Nihangs. After reading about a Frenchman who could ride a horse at full gallop and spear a target in the ground with a lance, Avtar Singh boasted that he could do it whilst riding on two horses - standing up. The Nihangs, not believing this to be possible took Avtar Singh up on the wager and were left astounded when he managed the feat.
Avtar Singh was under the tutorship of Baba Daya Singh, a close companion of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale. By 1982, Sikhs had launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha against the Indian government (more below) and Avtar Singh Brahma travelled to Amritsar to join Sant Bhindranwale in defence of Harimander Sahib. Bhindranwale however told Avtar Singh he would be of greater value continuing the fight instead of sacrificing his life within the complex. Bhindranwale mentioned that a few months down the line, Avtar Singh would be approached by a number of Singhs but until then to return to his village.
Following the desecration of Harimander Sahib, 37 Gurdwaras across Panjab and the Sikh Genocide in Delhi, Avtar Singh was approached by a group of Singhs who mentioned the time had arrived to lead a resistance. Although Sikhs had not been fighting for an independent Sikh nation, the desecration of their spiritual home for the second time in 30 years by the Indian Army meant that freedom was now a stated goal, formalised at a gathering of over a million Sikhs at the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa. The Sikhs arranged themselves similar to their fight with the Mughals 250 years previously, separating themselves into Misls.
Baba Deep Singh
Baba Deep Singh (26 January 1682 – 13 November 1757) is revered among Sikhs as one of the most hallowed martyrs in Sikhism and as a highly religious person. He is remembered for his sacrifice and devotion to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. Baba Deep Singh was the first head of Shaheedan Misl, an order of the military for the Sikh Empire formed under supervision of Nawab Kapur Singh organizer of the Sikh Confederacy and the Dal Khalsa. The Damdami Taksal also state that he was the first head of their order.
Baba Deep Singh was born on 26 January 1682 to his father Bhagta and mother Jioni along with his younger brother Bhai Bir Singh in the village of Pahuwind in Tarn Taran district. He was born to a Sandhu Jat family.
He went to Anandpur Sahib on the day of Vaisakhi in 1699, where he was baptised into Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, through the Khande di Pahul or Amrit Sanchar (ceremonial initiation into Khalsa). As a youth, he spent considerable time in close companionship of Guru Gobind Singh, learning weaponry, riding and other martial skills. From Bhai Mani Singh, he learnt reading and writing Gurmukhi and the interpretation of the Gurus' words. After spending two years at Anandpur, he returned to his village in 1702, before he was summoned by Guru Gobind Singh at Talwandi Sabo in 1705, where he helped Bhai Mani Singh in making copies of the scripture Guru Granth Sahib.