1947 Partition Stories I Brig S.S. Chowdhary: Soldier of Humanity

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’.

Brigadier SS Chowdhary is a retired army officer from the Assam Regiment now settled in Chandigarh. Before partition, he was part of the 8th Punjab Regiment, which has now merged into the Baloch regiment. During the period of riots he was on deputation with the Punjab Police. He was responsible for the evacuation of Muslims from Rohtak to Hussainiwala. While many non- Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, who had just arrived from Pakistan pressurized Brig. Chowdhary to allow them to attack the Muslims to avenge their own sufferings in West Punjab, he did not give in and said that as a soldier and as a Sikh there was no way he would allow anybody to touch these innocent people1. He has been fortunate enough to visit Pakistan, though he has not been able to visit Kahuta, as it is out of bounds—being home to Pakistan’s nuclear reactor. His wife Darshan Chowdhary belongs to Lahore and she has accompanied him on his visits to Lahore. They were among those families who during the partition were on vacation in Shimla and it was quite obvious that they would never return to their home.

Brig. Chowdhary’s ancestral village was Kahuta (though he was born in Kullu in January 1923, District Kangra which has now become a part of Himachal Pradesh). He joined the army in 1944 and was posted in the 8th Punjab Regimental center at Lahore in late 1945-early 1946.

The Brigadier still recalls the Cripps Mission visiting his regiment center in early 1946. About 60 per cent of the officers were British then. There was a high degree of regimental spirit amongst the officers in general and there was camaraderie between the Indian officers especially Reiterating the importance of watan, the Brigadier says, “I always liked to mix up with the VCO’s and ORS from Kahuta Tehsil. Major Nazar Shaitea Mohommad Khan who had been with my brother in the staff college in Quetta was always nice and caring towards me.”

Written by Tridivesh Singh Maini, Tahir Malik and Ali Farooq Malik, Humanity Amidst Insanity is a very important book, built around a historic event in 1947 that tore a continent in two, but focussed on human spirit of compassion that remained resilient even in those dark days. First Published in 2008, Blue Rose publications has brought out the second edition of the book in 2022. The Dispatch brings to you select stories from Humanity Amidst Insanity.

In mid 1946, Brig. SS Chowdhary then Captain was transferred to the British troops in Iraq at Shabra, which is approximately 25 km from Basra later he was transferred to what is called the Command Supply Depot. This was headed by Major G.R. Mirza. Within a short period, Brigadier Chowdhary and Mirza, a Punjabi Muslim, became great friends.

Despite the fact, that news had started trickling in that India would be divided and Muslims in India would be getting a homeland for themselves, relations amongst the officers were maintained. Later, when the riots broke out and killing had started from March 1947 onwards, unpleasant discussions were avoided in the messes and clubs. The British ensured discipline and comradeship.

During this time, remarks Brigadier Chowdhary, “Major GR Mirza went out of his way to remain pleasant with us all. Ultimately on my own request, I was repatriated to India in a ship called VARSOVA. In spite of all the tension I was given a warm send off by Major Mirza. Due to the threat to our lives, we were not allowed to disembark at Karachi and were taken to Bombay and then reported to the headquarters for posting. Those days because of the partition and unprecedented riots on both sides of the Radcliff Line, postings and transfers of the Army officers were being done without too much planning… was still commander in chief of both the Pakistani and the Indian Armies. Army officers were in great demand for various duties including law and order. I along with a dozen young officers was sent on deputation to the Punjab Government as part of the Punjab Police.”

Talking about his selection for the Punjab Police, he says, “After an interview with the Governor Chandu Lal Trivedi  at Jalandhar the Punjab Government headquarters,  I was deputed as Additional SP at Rohtak as part of the Punjab Boundary Force. The SP at Rohtak those days was  an experienced Police officer Rai Bahadur Sant Ram Kapur and Mr NN Kashyap ICS was the DC. The DC, SP and I had a meeting and a detailed discussion.”

For those not familiar with the Punjab Boundary Force, it has been explained well by Ishtiaq Ahmed2: “On July 17, Punjab Boundary Force under Major-General Rees was announced. It was to monitor events in 12 central districts — Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Lyallpur, Montgomery, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Ferozepur and Ludhiana — where most trouble was expected to take place. The PBF had no jurisdiction in the Sikh states and was woefully undermanned. It had at most 9 to 12 thousand men at its disposal, all locals except for the highest officers who were British, to cover 37,500 sq. miles. The PBF was to take up its task from August 1.”

Talking about his own duties, Brigadier Chowdhary says, “It was decided that I would be responsible for safe evacuation of the Muslim refugees in the District. Most of the Muslims were Ranghars and they belonged to 12 villages including Kalanaur. Like most young officers of the time I wanted to perform my duty with utmost sincerity and dedication and apart from this my stay in Lahore from 1945- 46 had resulted in greater understanding of the liberal views of Hazrat Mian Mir3. So, in spite of my own family being thrown out from Kahuta – one of the places which was worst hit by the riots – I did not have any prejudice against any community. Some time around the end of September 1947 when caravans consisting of Muslim refugees from 12 Ranghar Muslim villages started moving from near Rohtak towards Hussainiwala. I was approached by a few Hindu refugees who had come from Multan Division, an area where severe rioting had taken place, to disarm the Muslims and allow the Hindus to loot the caravans.”

But he was determined and firm in his resolve of saving the innocent Muslim, Brigadier Chowdhary says, “I put my foot down and informed them in no uncertain terms that the safe passage to Muslims refugees was my duty. Once or twice during the safe passage to these innocent Muslims we had to resort to firing. Finally, the refugees were transported to Hussainiwala safe and unhurt.

Towards the end of 1948, he was posted back to the army headquarters. The division of assets of the old Indian army was taking place between India and Pakistan under the overall supervision of Sir Claude Auchindeck. The army in general were performing their duties well.

In 1949, Brigadier Chowdhary was posted as Adjutant in the Regimental Centre at Shillong. Interestingly, he came to know that Field Marshal Ayub Khan had served Auchindeck in 1945-1946. Later, Brig. SS Chowdhary raised the 5th Assam Regiment in January 1963 and commanded this battalion in the war of 1965 in the Dera Baba Nanak Area.

While fighting the wars of 1965 and 1971 he was keen to know whether any of his previous colleagues were on the other side. He says, “During the 1965 war I was anxious to know if any officer I knew was on the other side.”

In spite of the fact that India and Pakistan were so hostile to each other there was this curiosity in his mind that he right be fighting against his long standing friends.

Yasmin Khan too sums up this point well: One of the quirks of partition was that many of the first and second generation of the leading officers in the Indian and Pakistani military facing each other across the Kashmiri line of control in the wars of the twentieth century had been close colleagues and worked alongside each other during the days before independence.

After retirement, Brig. Chowdhary did not get the chance to visit Pakistan for a long while, though he did make acquaintance with a few Pakistanis whom he met at the World Punjabi Congress meets in Chandigarh. One such individual, Chaudhry Muhammed Ashraf, a retired Pakistani civil servant is a very dear friend who has also looked after him on his subsequent visits to Lahore. Chaudhry Ashraf hails from a village close to Brig. Chowdhary’s. When the former was asked about how he met Brig. Chowdhary he says, “I met Brig. Chowdhary in the first week of June 2004, at the hotel in Chandigarh, where we had gathered for a seminar. This had been organized under the auspices of the World Punjabi Congress. During the tea interval we were introduced by chance and we immediately broke into our Pothohari dialect and Brig. Chowdhary embraced me with all warmth and sincerity like a family elder.”

Once again the bond of watan was very important for both of them. Ashraf says, “It was for the first time after partition that I had met someone from my ancestral place. We talked for a long time and reminisced about old time, with such loving fondness that I was deeply touched. Of course we exchanged our cards but there was no further contact since our group was leaving for Delhi the next day.”

Ashraf then explains how the bonds between the two were revived. “One year later, again by sheer good luck, I met Dr Gurpreet Maini (Brig. Chowdhary’s daughter) at Govt. College Lahore where she had come to deliver a lecture. I was very happy to learn that she was the daughter of Brig. Chowdhary and that luckily both her parents were also in town. Later, the same evening or perhaps the next day all of them called on us at our home. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Brig. Chowdhary’s first chance to visit Pakistan came in January 2006. He visited Lahore, Nankana Sahib, Punja Saheb and Islamabad. Talking about his experiences during the visit he says, “I was touched by the warm reception and consideration shown to me and my family by various kind friends.”

He had a great desire to see his regimental center but was disappointed by the fact that his erstwhile regiment 8th Punjab had been abandoned and merged into the Baloch regiment. Also he could not trace any of his old friends like Gen. Mirza.

His second visit to Lahore was in February 2007 and he was once again impressed by the warmth and hospitality of Punjabis across the Wagah. During this time he got the chance to meet some retired army officers and also interacted with some more people who were originally from Kahuta.

His wife Darshan Chowdhary also got a chance to visit Lahore, her hometown, after 60 years. Her father Mr. Ajit Singh Kalha was an engineer in the United Punjab Irrigation Department and every year the family went to Shimla for the summer vacation. In 1947 too like earlier years, her family went to Shimla. It was during the vacation in Shimla that they learnt that the country was being partitioned and they could not return to Lahore, which had now become a part of Pakistan. The only things the Kalha family had brought along with them were a few cane chairs.

Interestingly, one of their Muslim maidservants, Aalam Bibi, stayed on with them for two years after the partition, but soon people started telling her family that they should not keep a Muslim maidservant. While Aalam bibi did not want to leave the family, she was forced to go and Mr. Ajit Singh Kalha went right till the border to leave her.

Thus, both Brig. Chowdhary and his wife’s family in their own way and in their own capacity helped humanity survive in that holocaust, while they proudly narrate their experiences, we see hope emerge from the lines of this interview.


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