August 1947 – Azadi (Freedom)

Chandra Sayal


Chandra Sayal née Hooja is a retired doctor, now living in Derby, England. She worked for over 30 years in the NHS in UK. She was a specialist in Community Medicine and Public Health.

Each year on 15th August when Independence Day is celebrated, most people are not even aware of the price their elders paid to get freedom. Of course, it is an occasion to celebrate, because after years of struggle, Indians were at last successful in attaining freedom. It is a cause of rejoicing since they were able to free from the clutches of the foreign rule. I am glad for the younger generations, who are now able to have their own laws, own rules, own government and freedom without being dictated by the foreigners. They must rejoice because they are now able to have own president, own prime minister, own ministers. They should be happy because they are now a free people in a free country with an end of foreign rule.

But the Indians of my generation can never forget the year 1947 as we witnessed the chaos, bloodshed and anarchy. So on 15th August, I have mixed emotions and I ask myself how can I rejoice when I saw millions of innocent people from West Punjab pouring in the country as refugees. They had walked for days and days and had covered miles and miles on foot, in heat and dust, from their villages across the border to a place of safety, to Free India, which was going to be their new home. On the way, many had lost their husbands, their wives, their children, their relatives and friends from disease, heat and exhaustion. Many more had died at the hands of their `enemies', whom they had once called their brothers.

No doubt, they were victims of circumstances, of political stooges to fulfil their own ambitions, but unfortunately now they were victims of killer diseases, mainly cholera from which they were dying like flies. People from the West Punjab and also from East Bengal at the far end had suffered most, but those, who escaped death from the hands of blood-thirsty `demons' and their sharp shining knives, were to be struck again by another cruel enemy, the `cholera', which waited to take them to the gates of death.

They were bewildered\; they were shocked\; they were dazed. They had only handfuls of their belongings with them. There was no food\; there was no water\; there was no milk for the children. There were babes in arms\; there were pregnant women who needed rest\; there were the old and sick who needed care and shelter. The children cried and whimpered because they were hungry and tired. Some were listless, but they had to walk miles and miles, and faster and faster to a place where they would be safe and able to rest. They must save their lives by reaching the place of safety. Some were fortunate to have survived the ordeal and reached Free India\; but others were not so fortunate. Such people paid a heavy price for our freedom so that it could be celebrated with joy by the ones who survived and for future generation.

No one was ready to give them shelter. There was chaos. There were no preparations afoot. No one had imagined such a huge influx overnight. Nobody anticipated the scale of the exodus. Nobody envisaged such a scale of tragedy, such catastrophe at such a speed. The government made no plans. People were lying on the roadside. People were lying near the railway stations, near the railway lines. People were lying in the streets-exhausted, with no strength to move. Nights were tolerable because it was summer, and in the middle of August, people could sleep under the sky in the open\; but during the day in scorching heat, the sun was unbearable. It was monsoon season, when it could rain any time in heavy torrents. People had no facilities to cook or wash, or even to attend to their daily needs. Now, in this free land, the conditions were far from congenial for them. Instead, they were facing an open invitation to cholera, dysentery and typhoid due to the insanitary conditions and an open ground for mosquitoes to breed and spread malaria.

Something had to be done and fast. People could not be left to their own wits and devices. They must have somewhere to stay. They had no means. They had no support. They were helpless. They had no strength. They were exhausted from the long and arduous journey.

And my mother took charge. Since the schools were shut for the long summer vacations, she must ask the headmasters of the schools to hand over the keys to her. She must have the class rooms, now empty, for the use of the refugees. At least they would have a roof over their heads. Families might have to share the rooms\; but at least, they were not in the open during the day or night. She must find them food. She must find them clothes. She must provide them with the daily necessities. She must do something and soon.

So, she organised a small group of women, who daily went to the bazaars and asked each shopkeeper to contribute something, anything they could afford to give. A grocer could supply atta-dal-ghee (flour, lentils and butter), a green grocer could give vegetables. A fruit shop could provide fruit. A `Bartan Wala` could give pots and thalis (plates). A cloth merchant could give some material which could be made into saris or stitched into shirts, blouses and frocks. Some shops could provide beds. Some could give blankets. These ladies went from house to house in the town and collected `unwanted` garments and linen.

The people who had been displaced from across the new borders had to be accommodated, at least temporarily, until more permanent arrangements could be made officially by the government. The leaders, of course, were too busy even to see the plight of the people who had paid the price for freedom and for their leadery (leadership). They were busy rejoicing and celebrating ‘Freedom'. They had cause to rejoice, because they had lost nothing\; rather they had gained from this freedom. They could spare no time for the needy.

But my mother could not wait. She had to see to the daily needs of these people immediately. She had already been busy making provisions for medical care for the people who had been coming to the town in dribs and drab since March, to get away from the atrocities in their home towns\; but then these were only on a small scale. The number had been nothing like it was now. Some women were pregnant. Some were almost ready for labour and they could have babies any time. Some people were sick, some children were ill and needed immediate attention. Appropriate arrangements had to be made for them to be taken to the doctors or to the hospitals.

By now, everybody in town knew her and gave assistance. No one refused help. She was already known as Mata Ji (Respected Mother) by both old and young, So no one said NO to her, and everyone was ready to offer his/her services willingly.

Hence bit by bit, step by step, the whole project began to run smoothly and swiftly. Even the local deputy commissioner and other government officers agreed to help until such time as they received official orders from the central government. Eventually, about eight miles away from the city, a refugee camp was set up in the barracks which had been vacated by the British Army. Since barracks could not accommodate such huge numbers of displaced people, tents were provided as a temporary means to accommodate everyone. The refugees were mainly the women, children and old people who had been given priority during evacuation. Soon, outside help came. Food, clothing and extra blankets that came from abroad were distributed among people to keep them warm. Paid workers and volunteers arrived to assist the refugees, who were mostly villagers and illiterate.

I was a medical student. My studies were interrupted because I was unable to go back to the university at Lahore. It all happened during my summer vacation. I was at home in Ferozepur, a border city, with my brother, who held a high government post at that time. We all came forward to help Mata Ji, who was already actively involved. She was provided with a separate barrack to continue with her work, assisted by her women volunteers from the town. These women were brought to the camp each day by a special bus. Mata Ji's barrack was particularly busy. Even Lady Mountbatten, as she met her, praised her for doing such wonderful work. The people who needed extra clothing, food and vitamins were given chits by the camp officers or the doctors, and they could come to Mata Ji and ask for the articles.

I joined the medical team, and started working from the hospital barracks. I helped doctors each day by giving cholera injections to hundreds of new arrivals. Sick people who were suffering from cholera had to be isolated. Others with typhoid, dysentery and malnutrition were allocated to different barracks. The cholera patients had to be re-hydrated with saline drips. I put intravenous drips in their arms in most difficult conditions. There were no beds and the sick were lying on the floors. There were no nurses to care for them. So the relatives were asked to keep vigil over them. Some had no relatives and a kindly woman would occasionally offer. In the end, some would recover, while many died and never saw their sons, fathers or husbands. Some women lost their young ones who did not have vitality to recover and others died leaving their young children in the care of their relatives.

One late evening, it was dusk and I was returning to the town in the bus. I noticed a number of people walking away from the town with their possessions of radios, bicycles, sewing machines, cooking utensils etc. I was taken by surprise. These people looked like town dwellers and not like the refugees from the border always appearing ill-nourished and exhausted and carrying only a few meagre possessions. I could not understand why people were walking away from town at that hour. We were not even notified about the arrivals of the new refugees\; otherwise I would have stayed back to assist.

When I reached home, I came to know that there were floods in Sutlej River, and the whole city was under water. We were personally told that since we lived in the cantonment area of Ferozepur, the situation would not be desperate and we need not leave, as we were not particularly at risk. But it was wrong information. No sooner had we finished our dinner than we saw a surge of water gushing into our gates. We were forced to take shelter on the roof before we could be rescued at midnight by a colonel in the army who had been working closely with Mata Ji during this period and suddenly thought of her. By this time, the emergency was declared and the whole area was under the control of army.

I could not sleep that night. My thoughts were with my patients, especially with a young woman suffering from cholera I had left earlier in a solitary barrack, in a comatose condition with a drip. Sitting beside her was a small child who could barely talk. I am sure she with her child and many other patients must have been swept away in the floods in that dark without having the opportunity of being rescued. What suffering and what a waste of life for so many to have left the world in such dire circumstances in a strange land in the name of independence and freedom, the azadi. That was the price some of our countrymen and women paid for our freedom

Each year on the 15th August, when our people celebrate Independence Day, I think of those who lost their lives in such dreadful conditions. At the same time, I also think of the brave and selfless people like my mother, who were always there to help the unfortunate ones.


© Chandra Sayal (née Hooja) 2019


Thank you . But you have relit painful memories.

Thank you.. Painful memories relit.

Interesting read. I have heard the exact same story from Chandra Buas brothers, my dadaji and base dadaji, but, because they ended up joining the Indian government, their narrative was more descriptive and not as emotional as Chandra Buas writing/ discription of events

I,now 88 years,born in Lyallpur(undivided India as the Indian Passportlikes to call it) in1931.nor prepared to go through it.As Drt.JKAnand said."lit up too painful?.

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