The euphoria of Independence was short-lived, as the consequences of partition descended like a pall of gloom. The acid test of the then recently divided Indian Army’s humanitarian and impartial character came when the cross-movement of refugees between India and Pakistan led to mistrust and communal violence. Those who were fortunate to survive and reached their destination never forgot Indian Army’s effort to ferry them safely. Besides protection for refugee columns, the Army also provided medical cover at points along the refugee routes. The Military Evacuation Organisation (MEO) was formed to organise the safe movement of civilian refugees, and a major refugee camp was set up at Kurukshetra under then Brig Nathu Singh. The MEO rendered invaluable yeoman service. While interacting with the writer, Brig SS Malik (retired/settled in New Delhi, died some years ago), an instructor at the Defence Service Staff College at Quetta in 1947, I was told of his interesting experience of returning to India. Malik was in charge of a special train to bring back military personnel from Quetta to Ambala. Many civilians were desperate to reach India. Ignoring orders not to take any civilians on the train, he took in as many as possible, as a result two-thirds of the packed train comprised of civilians. Only one light machine gun and 12 rifles were allowed on board.
All these were manned by the staff college student officers who had orders to shoot from the windows if attacked by mobs. Interestingly, it was Malik’s old friend, Maj Yahya Khan (later General and the second dictator President of Pakistan), who warned him of a plan to sabotage the train. “He was not in favour of Pakistan,” Malik said. The train finally chugged out of Quetta and during the tense three-day journey before it reached Hindumalkot (near Fazilka), Pakistani detachments en route took potshots at it. Fortunately, no one was hurt. At Hindumalkot, the change of engines, from Pakistani to Indian, took a whole day and finally the train reached Ambala after another day’s journey. Brigadier (retd) Iqbal Singh Dhillon, AVSM, was the officer commanding (OC) of a train for refugees. It was an experience for him. On September 3, 1947 the train was to escort all the refugees from Chanoet. Dhillon had 12 Sikh and 12 Muslim soldiers and a Muslim Subedar under his command for escorting the train that left Chanoet at 8.15 am. On reaching Khurdianwala, he saw some Sikh Soldiers with rifles on the platform who had come to escort another train, and were going back to Lahore. There were 16 Sikh soldiers placed under his command. When the train reached Sangla Hill there was a Hindu-Sikh refugee camp only 100 yards away from the railway station. When the refugees saw the train, they occupied every little space available. The train halted next at Churkana, where the refugee camp extended more than a mile on each side of the railway line and mostly ‘Virk Biradari’ was camping there. Dhillon asked them to find space in the train.
They loaded all the luggage on the roof of the train and managed to sit there as well. Dhillon did not realise that with migration of Hindu and Sikh staff the railways was in a big mess. The train reached Shahdara at 3.30 pm and was stationed there for 3 hours. He went to the station master’s office and gave him a piece of his mind. The excuse given to him was that there was no platform available at Lahore. He told the station master that he belonged to Lahore district and that he knew there were nine platforms at Lahore railway station. While they were talking an announcement came that train no 19 was on its way and the railways employee wanted to confirm the number of the train. He went back to the train and detailed the 28 Sikh and 12 Muslim soldiers on patrolling. Some refugees there complained to Dhillon about 25 to 30 Muslim men with assorted weapons sitting at platform no 1. Dhillon told the complainants that it was their country and they could sit where they liked and that as long as they did not create any danger to the safety of people in the train, he would not interfere. It was nearly about 11.30 pm when one person pushed him and got into the train followed by another man. Dhillon asked them what happened and was told that another train was coming from Lahore and was going to halt at platform no 2 which was common with platform no 3. The width of both the platforms was approximately 30 feet. It was difficult to guard the whole train with limited number of soldiers. So, Dhillon decided it would be better to lay no 3. He then led the light machine gun (LMG) crew to the end of the platform and instructed them to lie down, load the LMG but not fire without permission. Dhillon kept standing next to the LMG till the train arrived and halted on platform no. 2.
The men sitting inside the train started shouting “Ali Ya Ali…Allaho Akbar, Pakistan Zindabad.” Imagine the state of the Indian refugees only 30 feet away from this train, who were not aware, that Dhillon had, taken adequate precautions for their safety. He knew that halting the train for a long time at Badami Bagh was not safe, but every time he asked the station master, he was told that no platform was available at Lahore. At about 3.15 am on September 4, 1947, Dhillon was chatting with the station master, a very civilised young man who was probably there on his first posting. While both were discussing the lawlessness, they suddenly heard a crowd shouting and the Muslims, who were sitting on platform no.1 were coming down the stairs towards the station master’s office. Dhillon had a .32 bore pistol in his pocket, which he took out and cocked it, thinking that the train had been attacked and the Muslims were coming down the stairs towards the station master’s room to kill him. Dhillon was all ready to attack. But luckily no one entered the room. When Dhillon saw a big gap on the stairs, he ran out, crossed the railway lines and reached the platform. He found out that the commotion was caused by the engine driver starting the engine and to get some water. With this Muslims sitting and sleeping on platform no1 thought they were being attacked. But it was safe. The station master decided to put his foot down on railway authorities in Lahore and warned that he would not permit any train from Lahore to Shahdara or Shahdara to Lahore. He was warned by the authorities that he would be dismissed from service if he did not obey orders.
The station master said, “You can do what you like, but I will not permit any train to move from Lahore to Shahdara or Shahdara to Lahore.” Dhillon could not help appreciating the character of this young station master, who took such a stand. Finally the train was moved and halted at platform no 9 at Lahore Railway station. Suddenly a number of women rushed to Dhillon saying, “I am Hindu/Sikh and want to go to India.” Dhillon told them, they are welcome. While millions were killed in the extended bloodbath the partitioning of units, weapons and equipment and exchange of personnel between Indian Army and Pakistan army was peaceful. Though an emotional sense of loss was there. Joyanto Nath Chaudhuri (later General Chief Of Army Staff during the 1965 India-Pakistan War) was appointed Director of Military Operations (DMO) and Intelligence at Army headquarters in New Delhi in November 1947. He was the fourth officer to become director of military operations for the Indian army in the calendar year of 1947 and worked with Major General Mohite to complete the military evacuation from Pakistan. He had to organise the Kashmir war effort up to May 1948, when he was succeeded by SHFJ Maneckshaw (later General and Army Chief during the 1971 India-Pakistan War and eventually Field Marshal) as DMO.
— The author is editor, Word Sword Features