1947 Partition Stories I Indira Kathpalia: Rescued by a true Nawab

The partition of undivided India into two states, India and Pakistan, in the year 1947 remains one of the greatest tragedies, not just for the two countries but the entire world. While the partition showed some of the worst sides of humanity but even in those dark days the human spirit of compassion remained resilient. Individuals reached out across cultural and religious boundaries to help those in need. Tridivesh Singh from India, and Tahir Malik and Ali Farooq Malik from Pakistan, came together to tell stories from both side of the divide which show us humanity’s triumph over our angry, violent inner nature.   The Dispatch brings to you the select stories from the book ‘Humanity amidst Insanity’.

Indira Kathpalia now settled in Delhi is in her mid 70’s. While she received her education at Sacred Heart Convent Lahore, her paternal family was based in Dera Nawab Khan and maternal family was based in Bahawalpur – a Muslim majority state with a population of about one and a half million and two million consisting of Punjab and Sind. There are some features of her story which are an insight into the extant syneretic culture. Firstly, her father was helped by the Nawab of Bahawalpur to escape. Secondly, when the riots had broken out she and her sisters were left alone in Dera Nawab Khan, while her father had gone to Delhi. During this period, the family was looked after by Muslim servants and a gentleman by the name of Colonel Kader. Thirdly, while her maternal grandfather was shot during partition the rest of the family was safely transported to the refugee camp by Muslim boys. Reminiscing about the pre-partition social fabric she feels that it was a composite culture even though Hindus and Muslims did not eat together—it was restricted to certain foodstuffs — men of course later on began to break bread. Yet, there was a respect for each other’s sentiments. For example, non-Muslims did not eat halal meat, so on Hindu festivals, Muslims would send non- Halal preparations to their houses. Another interesting point she makes is that while in Dera Nawab Khan, she and the other female members of her family would wear the ‘burqa’ – as it was a way for women to hide their faces from unknown males. This illustrates the point that the ‘burqa’ was a cultural and societal symbol not merely a religious thing as has been thought of by many scholars. Apart from this many a time Muslim friends would come to their house and offer namaaz.

In fact Indira Kathpalia’s sister, Oona Hiremath still has a ja-namaz (prayer mat) which was used by their friends in her possession.

Talking about the onset of the riots, Indira Kathpalia says that her maternal grandfather, Mehta Fateh Chand Taneja who was settled in Bahawalpur was not keen at all to leave his home. In fact, just a few days before the riots began he bought land from the profits which accrued to him from his business. He did this to show that he was keen to stay on in Bahawalpur. A few days later, sometime in late July he was shot. Ironically, it was Muslim boys who brought her grandfather’s stick home and helped the rest of the family to flee to refugee camps.

Further on as she spoke of own experiences during partition, Indira Kathpalia recollects that sometime in June, the Nawab went to London while her father who had accompanied him till Karachi went to Delhi. Even though by now the riots had worsened, her family continued to be looked after by Muslim male servants and a gentleman by the name of Colonel Kader, who guarded them. Such was the respect for her family, that once, when her house was looted, after the robber came to know about the owners they were quick to return the looted objects.

She also narrates an interesting episode, which is a perfect illustration of how the concept of women’s honour was important in those days. Her mother told Colonel Kader, that in case anything happens to her he should not restrain from shooting the girls. Colonel Kader said that while he could not do this instead he would teach the girls how to shoot, in case such a situation arose. While trying to teach the girls how to shoot a bullet went up in the air missing her sister’s ear by a whisker and actually damaging her father’s library. She also narrates one more interesting episode. After her grandfather’s death a group of individuals came to pay their condolences. They were Hindus who had converted to Islam. Her mother otherwise a tolerant person criticized these individuals remarking, ‘Religion is not a shirt that you take off whenever you feel like’.

Identically interesting example of conversion to Islam is also given by Moon who was witness to a “feeble” Pro-Muslim, pro-Pakistan demonstration by suspected converts. On being asked why they had converted, the individuals remarked: The Hindus, after being consoled and reassured and finally convinced that we did not mean to harm them told us that they belonged to the large village on the other side of the canal and that it had been attacked and looted the previous day by large mobs of Muslims from the surrounding countryside. They had been compelled to embrace Islam in order to save their lives.

Indira Kathpalia’s father returned to Bahwalpur around the end of August, while riots had begun, the family continued to be guarded safely under the auspices of the Nawab who returned in July from the UK, after Lord Mountbatten had invited the ruling princes to Delhi to decide their future. Around the month of November, the Nawab finally told the family, that it would be better if they leave for some time and return once things have quietened down.

He made arrangements for them to stay in Bahawalpur house at New Delhi. Incidentally, the American Center Library functioned in Bahawalpur house for a long time before shifting to Kasturba Gandhi Marg. During IK Gujral’s Prime Ministership, a request was made for transferring this property to the Bahwalpur Wefare Association.

Going back to the saga of how they fled. The Nawab sent their family in his personal train. From Bahwalpur they first reached Hindumalkot in Rajasthan, which was the first railway station in India. From there onwards the family moved to Delhi, where they lived for a few months. Finally, like many other immigrants, the reality dawned upon them and they realised that, there was no way they were going back.

Even post-partition, Indira Kathpalia’s family kept in touch with their friends of Bahwalpur, especially the Nawab who even wrote a letter to Maulana Azad recommending her father’s case. She says that in spite of her maternal grandfather being killed by Muslims, her mother developed no biases towards the community. Mrs. Kathpalia has not got a chance to visit her former home in Bahwalpur though she went to Lahore and Islamabad in 2000.


The Dispatch is present across a number of social media platforms. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for exciting videos; join us on Facebook, Intagram and Twitter for quick updates and discussions. We are also available on the Telegram. Follow us on Pinterest for thousands of pictures and graphics. We care to respond to text messages on WhatsApp at 8082480136 [No calls accepted]. To contribute an article or pitch a story idea, write to us at [email protected] |Click to know more about The Dispatch, our standards and policies