Kullu's tree of Freedom, and an untold story of Partition violence
Features Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 05:30
Canis Lupus | The News Minute | August 14, 2014 | 6.19 pm IST It is a Himalayan Elm (Ulmus wallichiana) known locally as the Mohran, and this particular tree is 67 years old. It grows on the Western edge of the Dhalpur ground of Kullu, where the famous Dussehra festival of Kullu takes place. Himalayan Elms are much loved by surveyors because they can grow many metres thick and 30 metres tall and make good landmarks to aim their prismatic compasses at. So, this one has many years of growth and life ahead of it. The Planting Ceremony On 15 August 1947 a handful of people huddled at this spot. The leader, Lal Chand, dug a hole at this spot and planted an Elm sapling. Somebody poured a lota of water around the plant. Pandit Chandrashekhar, a local poet and Sanskrit scholar, recited a short verse. Then they hurried through Vande Mataram and quickly dispersed. Lal Chand wasnâ€™t particularly keen on hanging around the spot and admiring his sapling. The local Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), a Britisher, had announced a couple of months ago to all and sundry that he would, personally, like to shoot the aforementioned Lal Chand. India had been free for the last few hours but you never knew the copsâ€¦ The DSP believed that Lal Chand was behind his law and order woes of the last few months. He was probably wrong on this because at that time Lal Chand didnâ€™t have much of a following. But how can you plead your case if you have a piece of lead lodged inside you? Flashback Letâ€™s go back a few months in time. Punjab Province extended to the outskirts of Delhi (todayâ€™s Haryana), the North Western Frontier Province (present-day Pakistan), UP, Kashmir, and Tibet. Kullu where Kullvi Pahari is spoken, (and even Spiti, where a dialect of Western Tibetan is spoken) were in Punjab.Â Jinnah was demanding the whole of Punjab for Pakistan because the Punjab government led by Khizr Hyat Khan had opted for Pakistan. To emphasis his point Jinnah had got riots engineered in Rawalpindi, the victims being mostly Sikhs. A Congressman, Prabodh Chandra, published a booklet in English with grisly photographs Rape of Rawalpindi. The government promptly banned the book and started looking for the writer, printer and publisher. They never found any of them but the book found wide circulation. So sure was Jinnah of bagging the whole of Punjab that he had even set his eyes on Delhi, according to a retired High Court judge, DS Tewatia in his autobiography. Even as recently as June 1947 nobody knew what the boundaries of Pakistan would be like â€“ or even if they would be drawn at all. This bit of ignorance cost many thousands of lives. Looming Partition of India, of Punjab The British were determined to create Pakistan; they wanted access to the oil rich Persian Gulf via a pliable and weak Dominion of Pakistan. Nehru and his merry men were showing strong pro-Soviet sentiments so free India would have to be kept insulated from the Gulf and Afghanistan. For doing so, they would see to it that the part of Kashmir, adjoining the Frontier and Afghanistan stayed away from India, if not the whole of Kashmir. (Details in Narendra Singh Sarilaâ€™s book Shadow of the Great Game â€“ The Untold Story of Partition. Sarila should know; he had been Mountbattenâ€™s ADC. Speaking of books, the Brits had evidently not read Mary Shelleyâ€™s book Frankenstein properly). Congress decided to cut their losses and opt for partition of not just the country, but also of the Provinces of Punjab and Bengal. RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha still wanted to prevent the formation of Pakistan. Rioting began in various places, goons of the Muslim League on one side and goons of RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, Arya Samaj and Congress (yes, these too) on the other. In those days it was quite normal for a person to wear many of the four hats â€“ RSS, Mahasabha, Arya Samaj and Congress â€“ all at one time. Evil Plans Now back to the narrative.Â According to the late Pt. Chandrashekhar, the poet and Sanskrit scholar, a pair of strangers made an appearance in Kullu and held a series of late night meetings in the houses of local Congressmen. They claimed to have been sent from Delhi by important â€“ though unnamed â€“ leaders. Their message was brutally cynical. Kullu too would go to Pakistan as it was in Punjab. To prevent that, the Muslims would have to be chased out. The tactics were to be a mirror image of Muslim League methods in Rawalpindi and other places. Pt. Chandrashekhar, who too was a Congressman, was on good terms with quite a few Muslims and tipped them off. One pretended to adopt the Arya Samaj faith and saved himself. The riots â€“ organised attacks actually, started about a week after these strangers left. Communal Violence Who was to blame for these riots? The presence of RSS in Kullu was virtually nil, the Arya Samaj had only a small handful of shopkeepers as followers, and the Mahasabha was confined to a one-man army in the person of Bhagat Ram, nicknamed B.A. because he had once joined college in the BA classes. However, BA was lying low at present because he had just squeaked through safely from a hanging offence and wasnâ€™t too eager for another run-in with the cops so soon. He had recently got off from a charge of the murder of a recruiting agent due to lack of evidence.Â A small digression may be in order here. During World War II these agents roamed the countryside, especially fairgrounds, armed with a hand-cranked gramophone, a makeshift height measuring stick and a tape measure for the chest. They would play a song â€śBharti ho ja re rangroot, bharti ho ja. Ghar pe milti sookhi roti, Fauj mein milta furoot.â€ť (Join the army o recruit, join the army. At home you eat dry rotis, in the army you get fruit). A Punjabi version with an identical tune and verses with identical promises of fruits, suits and boots was also played in Punjab.Â These agents got a bounty of so many rupees a recruit from the government. The downside was that they were not terribly popular with families who had lost a boy to the war, and the Nationalists hated them and considered them fair game. One such agent had been found bludgeoned to death at a lonely spot in Kullu and BA had been the accused. Fateful Order The DSP saw that he was woefully undermanned to provide security to all the Muslim houses. He gave a fateful order. All the Muslims of Kullu were to shelter at the sarai (a ramshackle single storey affair for travellers to stay on the northern edge of the Dhalpur ground) where the cops could guard them. A few dozen people complied. Thatâ€™s when things started to go terribly wrong. Most of the constables were locals and deserted, leaving one Sikh Havildar to man the post. A small group of men armed with muzzle loader shotguns and swords, and primed with locally brewed alcohol, tried to attack the serai. The Sikh Havildar menaced them with his service rifle. All appeals to his religious sentiments failed and they retreated. They held a short conference and then began shooting at him. The Havildar moved away taking his rifle with him. The mob thought he had run off and attacked again. They were too drunk to see where the Havildar had gone off to. A shot from a rifle rang out and a man was hit. If you have ever had rifles shot at you, you will know that you first hear a sharp slap of the bullet ripping through the air at about 700 metres a second (thatâ€™s faster than sound which travels at about 300 metres a sec). You hear the report of the rifle a split second later. When you have mountains on three sides (as it does in Kullu) the report echoes and re-echoes. So you may not be quite sure from where you are being shot at.Â Another shot hit another man. A local who is dead now, a retired armyman, said that it was the Sikh Havildar who was shooting from a concealed position near the Veterinary dispensary. The mob, however, looked in the exact opposite direction and believed the shots came from Mr Donald aka Daanal sahibâ€™s house.Â Daanal was known to possess a high powered rifle; all good Brits and Scots living in the hills did in those days. Daanal and his Mem werenâ€™t liked at all by the â€śnativesâ€ť due to their crabby nature. A mob soon started collecting to teach Daanal a lesson. Daanal and his Mem fled to the DSPâ€™s house. (Just a couple of days ago another local, Shri KL Sood, who was a Class X student at the time, told me that he had heard at the time that it the DSP himself who was sniping from behind Daanalâ€™s house). The armed men had meanwhile commandeered a truck. It was low on fuel so they forced a shopkeeper who sold petrol in tin canisters to part with his hoard.Â The killing started.Â The gunmen in the truck would load their guns and the truck would drive past the serai. They shot through the ramshackle doors and windows. The truck moved on. Guns reloaded (a muzzle loader takes considerable time to reload). The truck turns around. Same thing repeated. Again. And again. Nobody knows how many times it made a pass in front of that building. In the end all those inside were killed. The most tragic was probably the case of Amir Ali. He was a slightly built widower with a large goiter on his neck. He had a Pfaff sewing machine dealership and lived with his two unmarried daughters in rooms behind his shop. He was a high caste Syed and refused to get his daughters married to the Muslims in the area who were almost all of the Arain or Gujjar castes. He and the girls were amongst those sheltering in the serai. One can only surmise what went on in his mind, but he caught hold of one of the girls and stood her in the doorway. The truck and gunmen made its pass and the girl was shot dead. Next pass. The other girl was then held by her father in the doorway with her sisterâ€™s body at her feet. Guns fire. The other girl dies. Next pass of the truck. Amir Ali stands in the doorway. Same fate. The killing spread to other places. This happened some days later. It had turned dark. In a village 10 kilometers away a man known as the Thekedar (Contractor â€“ he had had a contract for floating government timber down the River Beas to the plains during WWII) heard a commotion in the street below (a dirt road actually) and saw a mob of about fifteen or so men â€“ none of whom he could recognize â€“ dragging an old Muslim man.Â What follows was as narrated to me by the late Thekedar himself.Â The mob was drunk and carried flaming wooden torches and a kerosene lantern. They were armed with swords and sticks. The naked swords gleamed red in the flames of the torches. Their victim was bleeding and bruised. On the opposite side of the street was the government dispensary which was staffed by only one man, Brij Lal, by designation a Vaccinator. But since he alone manned the dispensary he was known as the Doctor. Brij Lal lived in a room behind his dispensary and he too came out to see what the noise was about. â€śDakter sahâ€™b,â€ť said the injured Muslim man in Punjabi, â€śIss badnaseeb nu ik paani da ghut ta piya deo.â€ť (Doctor sahib, please give a sip of water to this unfortunate man). Brij Lal quickly went in and reappeared with a white enamelled tin mug full of water. Someone in the mob knocked the mug out of his hand. â€śWeâ€™ll kill you if you give him any water!â€ť said one. â€śWeâ€™ll make him drink urine,â€ť said another. â€śKill me, but donâ€™t do that,â€ť pleaded their victim. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a sword flashed and his head was rolling in the dust. The Thekedarâ€™s cook Kalu Ram came back with the news that the mob was taking the poor man to the Duff Dunbar bridge and had intended to throw him into the River Beas. They were now on their way to a Gujjar buffalo-herders camp about 2 Km away across the Beas. The Thekedar told Kalu Ram to take Moti, his cream coloured Ladakhi pony, and warn the Gujjars to scatter into the scrubby jungle. Kalu was an expert rider and rode Moti bareback, galloping wherever visibility permitted. When the mob eventually reached the Gujjar camp they found nothing except the remains of smouldering cooking fires and buffalo dung. Moti was well recognized in the area because of his tendency to throw his riders. The mob correctly concluded that the owner of Moti had something to do with their disappointment. The word was out: Motiâ€™s owner was on the hit list. For some days thereafter the Thekedar had to move around rather carefully. Teaching Daanal a Lesson Now back to the anarchy in Kullu town. The mob at Daanalâ€™s house looted whatever they could. Most had an eye on his henhouse containing prize imported chickens. Some others went in to loot just because everyone else seemed to be doing so. A neighbour of Pt. Chandrashekhar brought home a shiny white wide mouthed jar without any lid and wondered what to do with it. Perhaps he could get a carpenter to make a wooden lid for it and store things in it? He asked someone in the neighbourhood what this thing was. â€śCongratulations,â€ť she told him, â€śYouâ€™ve looted the pot of Daanal sahibâ€™s commode.â€ť Back to August 1947 These and other events had convinced the DSP that Lal Chand was responsible for his troubles. So he had decided to shoot him on sight. After the brief tree planting ceremony the small gathering broke up and Lal Chand returned to his hideout. A week or so later Pt. Chandrashekhar noticed the broken plant lying forlorn on the ground. No doubt some animal or urchin had done it. He was trying to re-plant it when a Forest Guard, who on his way to the Forest Office nearby saw him. â€śItâ€™s no use. The plant is dead. Iâ€™ll get another sapling tomorrow,â€ť he said. The next day the Forest Guard and Pt. Chandrashekhar planted the new sapling at the same spot.Â The Freedom Tree â€“ Thoâ€™ not exactly The two of them cared for the plant every day, watering it in the dry seasons, protecting it with branches of thorny bushes while it was small in size. By and by it grew into a healthy tree. And that is the tree we see today. Sadly, Iâ€™ve forgotten the name of the Forest Guard who deserves the credit for the Freedom Tree â€“ of sorts â€“ even though Pt. Chandrashekhar did tell me his name more than once. But he is no more so the anonymous Guard must find immortality through his tree. Why was there so much killing? All the Muslims (and Sikhs too) in Kullu were settlers from the Punjab plains. They had come here for economic reasons. The communal violence here in '47 weren't your regular riots. At no time were there more than 50 people involved in the violence at any place. Old timers whom I used to talk to would refer to the killings with a strange mixture of regret and justification (â€śthey brought this on themselves; they were fanatics and unable to get along with other communitiesâ€ť etc). But they agreed that since they wanted to go to Pakistan, they could have been allowed to go peacefully. Can it happen again?Â In my opinion: yes. And it can happen anywhere. A forensic scientist I know says that in every society there are about one-third of people with a criminal bent, another one-third are law-abiding. The remaining one-third are fence sitters and will go either way, as they find expedient. I believe that in times of anarchy the first one-third (the crooked ones) take charge and find a great excuse for looting, killing and raping; all of course in the name of the samaj which had kept them on the fringes all these years. The fence sitters join in when they see that nothing happens if you are naughty. The law-abiding one-third are too occupied to protect themselves and to survive somehow. And there you are: most of the populace has joined in the spree. So what is the solution? Please think about it because I donâ€™t have one. Today the Freedom Tree (of sorts) is large and wide of girth. The authorities have built a stone platform at the base for people who like to loaf around in its shade â€“ as I do sometimes. And if I know my Himalayan Elms right, in a few decades the girth will increase even more and the platform will need extensive repairs. Canis Lupus is a resident of Himachal Pradesh.Â Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.