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Raised in Bloodshed: The Story of One Sikh Woman’s Tenacity Post-British Rule

10 min read

Prologue: The Remnants of a People

Lahore, Punjab; 1940-1947

A wind of change is blowing as the sun begins to set for the great British Empire. The crown jewel has lost its shine; the breadbasket of India is empty. The seeds of revolution have been planted in the barren fields of Britain’s most valuable colony. Whispers are spreading throughout the state — partition is inevitable as the nation is beginning to crack right in the heart of Punjab. It is not cracking from natural wear and tear but rather being provoked, prodded and pulled. India is being manipulated into believing its religions and cultures cannot live in unity.

This is all a part of Britain’s divide and conquer policy. Sir John Strachey, a British Indian civil servant, wants to prevent “the growth of any dangerous identity of feeling from the community of race [or] religion” and believes “the existence side by side of the hostile creeds is one of the strongest points in our political position in India.” The British Empire is pitting religions against one another in politics and society through segregation.

However, the British Empire is reeling from the aftermath of World War II and is losing power. Civil unrest and fear of mutiny in India have started the unraveling of the empire. With little spices and riches left to take, the British decide to leave… but the animosity they have created will not scurry away along with them.

The day is 22 March 1940 in Punjab, the eve of partition. The city of Lahore rises with the sun. Dust dances in the wind as the suffocating heat of summer approaches. A thick smell of sweat and manure fills the air. Salesmen push tattered vegetable carts down bustling roads, the elderly beg for a few coins to feed their family and wild animals dig through piles of litter in an attempt to find their next meal.

Somewhere away from the clutter, politician Muhammad Ali Jinnah gathers with his colleagues for a three-day session of the All-Indian Muslim League. He wipes sweat from his furrowed brows as religious conflicts come to the forefront. Seven years ago, Jinnah supported Muslim-Hindu unity in India. Today, after years of volatile political conflicts and British-influenced division, Jinnah’s opinion has drastically changed. He believes Muslims will become second-class citizens in a predominantly Hindu nation and the two groups are too different to ever coexist. By the end of this annual session, he helps to pass the Lahore Resolution, establishing a separate homeland for Muslims out of British India. The session ends with Jinnah becoming the founder of Pakistan.

The Sikhs, predominant in Punjab, ask for their own sovereign state but are quickly ignored. Instead, Punjab is split between India and Pakistan. On the night of 15 August 1947, the nation tears in two.

The Sikh community is infuriated as families are split by the Punjab border, forcefully segregated by religious beliefs. Bad blood between Hindus and Muslims boils to a new height before spilling over at the border, leaving Sikhs caught in the middle of turmoil. Punjab becomes a victim of war.

Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru know that the Sikhs, despite only consisting of 2 percent of India’s population, have a militaristic history and make large contributions to India’s national army. The clever pair determines that the Sikhs would make useful allies in conflicts against Pakistan.

Gandhi tells the Sikhs:

“I ask you to accept my word… and the resolution of the Congress that it will not betray a single individual, much less a community… our Sikh friends have no reason to fear that it would betray them.”

Gandhi and Nehru will shamelessly break their promises later, but for now, the Sikhs become puppets of Hindu nationalism. Muslims in Pakistan, who now have sovereignty over a part of Punjab, develop a growing disdain for Sikhs. Lifelong friends kill one another for their religious communities and political agendas. The British Empire leaves the region tattered — the jewels have been lifted, the people have become divided and a mess has been left for someone else to clean. Bloodshed will ensue.

Stage I: A Fortunate Life

Lahore, Punjab; 1933-1944

Fourteen years before partition, the city of Lahore is buzzing. Men of different faiths work in the fields together. Their wives are at home, sharing stories over a cup of tea. Their children play cricket in the streets, sometimes taking shelter from the hot summer sun under the canopies of trees.

Congress slowly starts to take power from the British; the Indian people are a stone’s throw away from independence. The Government of India Act 1935 has given more autonomy to the Indian people. Although tension between religious groups has already begun, not many can see the struggles that lie ahead. And so, to the Sandhu family, it seems like a great time to raise a child.

Banso Sandhu is born on 15 June 1933.

She wakes up at the crack of dawn to race the sun out of bed and gets to work — she walks ten miles to fetch water, cooks for her father and uncles, cleans the house and then picks crops. Only in the evening, when the exhausted sun begins to retire for rest, does Banso get a chance to sneak off with the other young girls to gossip and share riddles. The girls sing songs, dance and tell folktales. It’s a short escape from her rigorous day, a chance to catch her breath, a moment to smile. Of course, such pleasure comes with the risk of being caught by her mother and being beaten with a wooden stick.

As cumbersome as her situation may sound, Banso is one of the more privileged girls in Lahore. She is one of ten children born into a well-respected and wealthy family. Although the Sandhu family lacks formal education, they have built their fortune through agriculture on copious amounts of land. Banso is expected to live a relatively easy life.

“People told me I should be grateful for the life I had,” she says now, eight decades later.  “But even in those times, I wasn’t allowed to go to school. As a girl, I was told education is for men and my job is to cook, clean and run errands. It was still a much better life than most had, so I didn’t complain.”

Stage II: Tales of Tragedy

Lahore, Punjab; 1944-1945

Not everyone is as fortunate as the Sandhu family. Hunger growls in the stomach of Punjab. In a dark alley in Lahore, a group of bandits plot to rob the Sandhu household. Their teeth are rotting, they suffer from malnutrition and black grime coats their rough faces.

Lahore seems quiet only in the darkest hours of the night. Banso, now eleven years old, is sleeping calmly in her home, unaware that her last few moments of peace are ticking away.

Her innocence ends with a loud crash as the front door is knocked down. Banso wakes up startled to see her uncles already running in panic. Six armed bandits enter the home with a wild look in their eyes, spitting as they bark out commands through clenched jaws. The entire family is summoned to the atrium-styled entrance of the house and tied to chairs with frayed rope.

One of the bandits tries to comfort Banso and her siblings with unconvincing promises that everything is okay while the other five scour the house. They fill large sacks with all of the gold and money they can find.

“Let them take what they want, don’t do anything to get yourself hurt,” Banso’s mother whispers to everyone in a shaky voice.

Things, however, do not work out that simply. Banso’s father is on the way home after working late in the fields on this unfortunate night. He walks in as soon as the bandits are about to leave and understands that he cannot let them pass — word would spread that the Sandhu family was weak and laid down without a fight. They would become targeted by bandits many times more.

His efforts were fruitless. One of the bandits raises his gun and shoots Banso’s father three times in the chest. She watches him die as she sits helplessly bound to a chair. Her racing heart won’t slow down, the panic will not disappear and she becomes void of every emotion except for fear. Banso tries to hold onto her sanity as she falls into despair but there is nothing to grab and no one to catch her. The next year of her life is a blur. She vomits every day and is bedridden with grief. She is too dizzy to walk or help her family as they struggle with their losses. An uneducated village doctor tells Banso that an evil spirit has entered her and gives her pills to take every day. There is neither acceptance nor treatment for her post-traumatic stress disorder.

As time passes, nothing seems to help Banso but her own strength. She learns to function through daily life and live with the dizziness. The pain in her heart is visible; the fear shows itself whenever a loud noise shakes the stillness of dark nights. She knows that the flashbacks will haunt her for the rest of her life. What she doesn’t know, however, is that her pain is just beginning.

Stage III: Bloody Rivers of Punjab

Punjab, Pakistan; 1946-1947

There is no time to grieve or dwell over losses. Word of partition and the creation of Jinnah’s Pakistan are spreading fiercely. Sikhs and Hindus on the Pakistani side of the Radcliffe Line fear for their lives as religious tensions spike. Lahore falls on the Pakistani side of the border, leaving the Sandhu family little time to escape and ensure their safety.

Millions of people try to relocate amidst chaos. Travelers know that survival is unlikely. With the loss of Banso’s father and their riches, the vulnerable Sandhu family decides to wed Banso at a young age to Jaginder Bhullar, a well-respected boy capable of providing for her.

Banso is married just as violence begins to erupt. With each passing day, bodies begin to pile up. Jaginder and Banso have no choice but to make a run for the border, hoping to cross safely into India. Banso takes her puppy along with her to remember her family and her home by, knowing she will never return to Lahore again.

The journey from Pakistan to India is not an easy one. Bodies float in the bloody rivers of Punjab. Family members wait at train stations to pick up their loved ones, only to find trains arriving at stations full of people slaughtered like animals. Angry mobs roam the streets attacking anyone of a different religious background. Fear overcomes Banso around every corner, knowing one wrong move could mean her death. However, Jaginder and Banso make it safely past the mobs. Their misfortune does not catch up to them until they reach the border, where military personnel berate the young couple and deny their requests to leave Pakistan.

The guards are angry, shouting and screaming as they steal every valuable item Banso carries with her. They eventually allow the couple to cross the border in exchange for gold, but Banso’s puppy will not stop barking and growling at them for their hostility. They grab the puppy and shoot it in the head, throwing its limp body aside and laughing as they tell the couple to move along. Banso hides her tears and passes through, leaving her best friend and her last connection to her home dead at the Radcliffe Line.

Stage IV: Same Heartbreaks

Punjab, India; 1947-1990

The beauty of Punjab does not fade in the village of Kandhwala. The sound of singing birds and the soft rumble of tractors can be heard through miles of green farmland. Jaginder and Banso buy land here, where they build a loving life together and raise four children. Banso shares riddles with them on rooftops under twinkling stars in the night sky. She is eager to give them the childhood she never had.

But political issues continue to boil. India’s government begins to retract its promises of independence made to Sikhs and oppresses Punjab instead, cutting off water supplies. Farmers become desperate as they begin to starve. In small villages like Kandhwala, water shortages lead to disputes over control of clean water.

Jaginder knows the importance of thriving as a community. Owning land that contains an ample amount of water, he tries to share it with his neighbors. In the end, his efforts prove to not be enough. Neighboring farmers get envious and greedy, demanding more water than Jaginder can afford to give.

Eventually, Jaginder’s neighbors will not accept “no” for an answer and decide to pay him a visit. Its midday, the hot sun is scorching down on Jaginder as he waters the few crops he has remaining. He hears a tractor pull up by his home and decides to return to greet his guests. He sees farmers, armed with rifles, yelling at Banso to tell them where Jaginder is. He approaches them calmly, smiling and asking for a peaceful conversation. But the farmers have already made up their minds; they did not come here to talk. Believing that they can take the water supply and land by weakening the Bhullar family, the farmers shoot Jaginder three times in the chest. He dies before Banso can rush over to hold him.

Banso relives the horror of her father’s death; her mental trauma worsens and her sickness intensifies. The fate of the family is left in the hands of her oldest teenage son, Baldev. He manages to take care of the farmland and the water, protecting it from the scavenging neighbors.

Still, the Bhullar family struggles. Baldev is heckled in the village and the family is called weak for not retaliating. Jaginder’s murderers roam the village freely, never paying for their crimes. The village begins to believe that the Bhullar family is easily taken advantage of, putting them at further risk.

Baldev decides he has no choice but to avenge the death of his father. Just like Banso, his innocence and childhood must end early. He will never forgive himself for the murders he will commit, but he has no other choice to ensure the safety of his family. He closes his eyes and pulls the trigger.

Unlike the farmers who killed his father, Baldev is charged with murder. Banso is now scared of losing her oldest son to a death penalty and is haunted by nightmares of his potential hanging. She cannot cope with losing another loved one. However, the family is eventually able to use political connections and bribery to free Baldev after two years in prison.

Stage V: A New Life

New York, U.S.A.; 1990 – 2016

Revolutionary movements arise in Punjab after broken promises by the Indian government. Conflicts between Sikhs and the Indian government lead to violent attacks and further oppression of the Sikh community. As violence spreads throughout the state, Banso decides to leave behind the pain that has haunted her family and relocates to New York City in May 1990.

Throughout her childhood, Banso heard how fortunate she was to be born with great privilege. Now, after all, the fortune of her childhood has been looted and shattered, she holds onto the blessing of being one of the few who was fortunate enough to escape the vicious cycle of violence in Punjab. She knows that millions of others were not so lucky.

Today, Banso is 83 years old. She is a great-grandmother and her children are thriving with business ventures while supporting her in her old age. Most importantly, everyone has been safe. However, Banso will never heal from her lifetime of tragedy. Whenever she hears a loud noise or someone yelling, she begins to tremble and tears flow from her eyes uncontrollably. Almost every day, she believes something terrible is waiting to happen just around the corner. Some days her dizziness leaves her bedridden and weak.

After having gone over seventy years with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, Banso is beyond the point of recovery. Banso never returned to Lahore after leaving and has only seen her siblings a few times since. Some of them have passed away without ever seeing their sister again.

Although she left behind so much of her life in Punjab, some things never changed. Banso still wakes at the crack of down to race out of bed and get to work — she feeds her grandchildren, she cooks for herself and she watches old Punjabi movies on the television. In the evening, when the sun begins to retire for rest, Banso shares riddles and stories with her family, laughing through the night. During her free time, Banso plants crops in her backyard, watering them and watching them grow as if she were still in the fields of Lahore. She hopes that somewhere out there, her loved ones have turned their misfortunes into blessings as well.