The land lies, dry and dusty, witness to the rise and fall of empires, the making and breaking of nations. They say past events, if sufficiently intense, leave behind impressions as deep as footprints on the fabric of time. Ferozepur has witnessed some of the most evocative scenes in the recent history of the subcontinent. In 1846, the death of the “Lion of the Punjab”, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, led to the swift disintegration of his empire in the Anglo Sikh War, involving some of the most concentrated acts of bravery and, equally, treachery, on the part of his own armies. One hundred years later, over 3 million people lost their moorings when the subcontinent split apart, and hundreds of thousands, divided by a senseless boundary – religion – left behind their ancestral homes and crossed the new frontier between nations. Can you hear the sighs of the homeless, echoed in the whispers of the hot wind as it raises eddies of dust off the road traversed by the unfortunate cavalcades as they migrated into the unknown, nations and identities thrust upon them?
History is not only the domain of the famous. There are many unsung heroes who have contributed their bit to upholding the principles on the backs of which national edifices are raised. Hussainiwala bridge in Ferozepur was the scene of one such incident that saved many hundred lives and gave hope to a people in despair. It was August 1947. A.K. Kaul, a young officer of the Indian Police, had recently taken charge as Superintendent of Police in Ferozepur district. A quick-thinking and resourceful officer, Kaul was known for his pragmatic and principled actions, but also for unhesitatingly protecting the vulnerable, even if it meant opposing those in power. This category was difficult to define in the time of the Partition of India, when the civil administration had collapsed utterly and even senior officials were scrambling to save their own lives and interests. As a matter of fact, Kaul had recently been transferred from Amritsar, another sensitive border town, where he had disarmed the entire unit of the Punjab Armed Constabulary under cover of a dress parade, preventing them from running amok. He was pulled up by his senior officers and an enquiry instituted against him.
In Ferozepur, Kaul was responsible for the safe crossing over of the cavalcades of Hindu and Muslim migrants, passing each other on the Hussainiwala bridge over the Satluj river. Each morning, he would drive over to the bridge in his Plymouth Coupe, park alongside the dusty dirt track adjoining the road, and, holding his service revolver loosely across his lap, watch the stream of bullock carts as they slowly wound their way forward, some carrying entire households, old men with white beards, women with heads and faces covered, clutching young children to themselves. At the end of the day, as the Muslims left India and entered the new country of Pakistan, while Hindus likewise entered their unknown destination, India, the barrier would fall for the day. Every once in a while lamentations would fill the evening air as families would be divided, having to wait out an uncertain night before they could rejoin their loved ones once the headcount began in the morning.
It was a morning like many others. Kaul sat in his car with his 8 year old nephew beside him. He had evacuated the boy’s family from Lahore a few weeks ago. His mother with two other children, her aged parents, sundry other cousins and siblings, a group of 20 people in all. Fond of children, Kaul often took the boy with him on his daily drive to the bridge. Suddenly, two Rah Sikhs, armed with spears and mounted on horseback, trotted into view. Confident of their power on this side of the border, they eyed the Muslim cavalcade slowly moving towards the bridge. Selecting their target, they suddenly put in a burst of speed and reaching a bullock cart, one of them pulled out a young, recently married girl and tried to swing her onto the horse before him. Kaul did not think twice. Raising his revolver and balancing the muzzle on the car window, he fired two shots in quick succession, bringing down both Sikhs. The girl fell weeping in her mother’s arms. The cavalcade continued in shocked silence.
That evening, he received a message from his counterpart, the Superintendent of Police of Kasur, the district across the border from Ferozepur. He strolled across to the bridge, in the middle of which stood his colleague and friend. “Kaul, you have saved the day’, the SP said. “Thanks to your timely action, many Hindu lives were saved on our side. There would have been a terrible backlash had you not reacted the way you did.” The two friends shook hands, looked at each other, perhaps for the last time, turned and went back to their respective countries.
Hussainiwala bridge stands still and silent today, witness to some of history’s most evocative, and most terrible, incidents. The demise of human relationships and the birth of two nations.
The village of Hussainiwala, located in Ferozepur district in Punjab, lies on the India-Pakistan border. On the other side is the village of Ganda Singhwala in the Kasur district of Pakistan’s Punjab. Known as the spot where the martyred heroes, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were cremated, the site is marked by a Martyrs Memorial today. In August 1947, thousands of caravans loaded with families and their belongings crossed the bridge over the river Satluj, leaving their ancestral homes to enter the newly formed countries of India and Pakistan. The story highlights a moment of drama in that narrative of migration, quickly submerged in the sea of sorrow that was the Partition of India and Pakistan.