Partition Survivors Seek Closure Through a YouTube Channel


FAISALABAD, Pakistan — Nasir Dhillon, a former policeman, sells houses in a Pakistani city about 100 miles from the Indian border. His real estate company has four locations and he drives a Toyota SUV, a local marker of affluence.

But Mr. Dhillon, 38, is better known for his sideline: reuniting people separated from their relatives during partition, when Britain split its large South Asian colony into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in August 1947.

Mr. Dhillon is the driving force behind Punjabi Lehar, a six-year-old YouTube channel that posts regular interviews with survivors of that traumatic episode. He says it has enabled a number of Muslims and Sikhs — including some who live in North America — to visit their ancestral villages, and has led to about 100 in-person reunions.

Partition led to communal violence, mass displacement and the deaths of as many as two million people. Some of the young people who survived were separated from their parents or siblings.

“What have they done wrong? They were children,” Mr. Dhillon said recently at his office in the northeastern city of Faisalabad. “Why can’t they visit their families now?”

In a typical case, Mr. Dhillon or his business partner, Bhupinder Singh Lovely, interview a person who wants to meet a long-lost friend or visit an ancestral house or village. The video ricochets around social media and sometimes prompts tips from the public that lead to a reunion or a journey to the countryside.

It’s a service that the governments of India and Pakistan have never offered. The neighbors have gone to war three times since the 1960s, and relations have essentially been locked in a deep freeze ever since, punctuated by periodic military clashes.

Many partition survivors on both sides of the border have expressed a dying wish to cross it and reconnect with lives and people left behind, said Anam Zakaria, the author of “Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.”

“Too many people have already passed away with this desire unfulfilled,” she added. “Against this context, the way in which Punjabi Lehar is fostering connections and reunions provides a window of hope and closure, at a time when we are at the brink of losing the partition generation.”

Other projects have sought to bring people from the two countries together over the years, including student exchanges and art projects, said Urvashi Butalia, the author of “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.”

But she said Punjabi Lehar is unique because it celebrates the identify of Punjab, one of the states of British India that was divided by partition. (It was also the site of several bloody clashes afterward that pitted Muslims against Hindus and Sikhs.)

“It harks to an identity that existed before partition, and in some ways continues after — a regional, linguistic, cultural identity, which links people together despite religious differences and rejects the assumption the British made at partition, that the only identity that needed to be foregrounded was the religious one,” Ms. Butalia said.

Mr. Dhillon, who is Muslim, said that his interest in partition’s legacy comes from his grandfather, who would tell the family stories about their ancestral village in Indian Punjab, and the Sikh friends and neighbors he used to know.

“In the media and elsewhere, we were told a different story about differences and enmity between the people,” Mr. Dhillon said, speaking in thickly accented Punjabi, a provincial tongue. “But our elders told of a time when Muslims and Sikhs lived peacefully together.”

In his mid-20s, he began making friends with Facebook users in Indian Punjab, and later created a Facebook page about Punjabi language and culture. He struck up a friendship with Mr. Lovely, a Sikh who lives nearby. They co-founded Punjabi Lehar in 2016, after Mr. Dhillon left the local police force.

Mr. Dhillon said they chose the name, which translates to “Punjabi Wave,” because an ocean wave is hard to stop.

Early responses to the channel’s videos came mainly from Sikhs in Canada and the United States; some later traveled to their ancestral villages after receiving new information about their families, Mr. Dhillon said. As word spread, he and Mr. Lovely also heard from people in Pakistan and India seeking to connect in person with long-lost friends and relatives.

It is notoriously hard to get tourist visas for traveling between India and Pakistan, and official channels that have occasionally allowed people to meet are now “pretty much frozen,” said Ilhan Niaz, a historian at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

“There is no government support for this sort of stuff,” he said.

There is one loophole: People from the two states can meet in person at a handful of Sikh holy sites in Pakistan that Indians are permitted to visit, mostly on religious pilgrimage visas.

Mr. Dhillon said about 80 of the 100 or so in-person reunions that Punjabi Lehar has enabled so far have taken place at Kartarpur, a visa-free pilgrimage site that opened along the border in 2019. He said the channel’s work has also led to virtual family reunions and about 800 in-person trips to ancestral villages.

Mr. Dhillon’s estimates could not be independently verified, but the channel has uploaded reams of videos that document emotional journeys and reunions in the Indo-Pakistani borderlands.

A recent one featured Mumtaz Bibi, 75, born in Indian Punjab and raised in Pakistan by a Muslim family that had adopted her as a baby after her mother was killed in riots fueled by partition.

This year, Ms. Bibi’s son contacted Punjabi Lehar to see if its administrators could help find her Sikh relatives in India. “The thing is, it’s a blood relation,” she said in a video that Mr. Dhillon uploaded in May. “Now, a fire is burning in my heart to meet my family.”

She learned that her biological father had died but that her three brothers still lived in the Indian city of Patiala. A video later posted to the Punjabi Lehar site showed her hugging them for the first time at Kartarpur, as they cry with happiness.

Punjabi Lehar now has more than 600,000 subscribers, and Mr. Dhillon employs two assistants. He said the site earns money from advertising but is not his primary source of income.

Most weeks, he said, he sets aside Fridays for driving through the Pakistani borderlands in his Toyota SUV, using his old police skills and contacts to seek partition survivors who are themselves searching for long-lost loved ones.

He said the site’s reach is now large enough that he normally receives a tip from the public — details about a missing friend, say, or a village address — within a week of posting a video.

There is one journey Mr. Dhillon hasn’t yet managed to arrange: He dreams of visiting the ancestral village and Sufi shrine in India that his grandfather once told him about. So far, the Indian authorities have twice rejected his application for a visa.

“The governments in both countries are too consumed with their own squabbling” to help families seeking closure, he said, echoing a widely held public perception.

Pakistani officials did not respond to requests for comment. An official at the High Commission in Islamabad, the diplomatic representation of India in Pakistan, said that the commission recognized the special need of separated families, but that visas were processed per the rules.

Mr. Dhillon has been noticed, however. He said that Pakistani intelligence agents had asked about his trips to the countryside, and suggested that he might be safer out of the country. He said that his business partner, Mr. Lovely, went to Germany last month after encountering similar pressure from government authorities, but planned to return to Pakistan soon.

Mr. Dhillon said that his own family lives in a village and knows little about his work. “They ask: ‘What do you do that you need to keep traveling here and there?’”

Salman Masood reported from Faisalabad, Pakistan, and Mike Ives from Seoul.

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