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Pakistani friends hope viral videos can reunite those split during India's partition

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say the elderly sister and brother who hugged one another hadn’t seen each other since childhood and were separated 75 years ago. In fact, two had never seen one another before, because the brother was born after the sister was separated from her father during Partition. Also, we incorrectly say the two have the same mother; in fact, the brother was born to their father’s second wife after his first wife, the mother of the sister, died during Partition.]

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been 75 years since British-ruled India was carved into two new states - independent India and Pakistan, a homeland for Muslims. Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 was violent, and it led to one of the biggest migrations of the 20th century. An estimated 10 million people fled across the newly drawn borders, Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Perhaps a million people were killed. Families were torn apart. And decades on, two Pakistani friends are trying to reunite loved ones before it's too late. And they're doing it by making viral videos. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Burewala, Pakistan.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In a video watched hundreds of thousands of times, an elderly brother and sister hug each other like they never want to let go. They're at a border crossing between India and Pakistan. It's the first time they've seen each other since childhood. They were separated 75 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: The brother is Sikh, with a black turban and long gray beard. He's come from India. His sister is a Muslim. She wears a pink headscarf. She's Pakistani. They were both born into a Sikh family who fled to India during partition. But their mother was killed, and that elderly woman was just a baby left behind with her dead mother. She was found by a Muslim couple who raised her as their own. They were reunited by two Pakistani men who've gained a reputation for finding loved ones lost during partition. The men are Nasir Dhillon and Papinder Singh. Singh tells me...

PAPINDER SINGH: (Through interpreter) In the next five or 10 years, these people will pass on. We want to bring peace to people who have held this pain in their hearts for 75 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: For the past six years, Singh and Dhillon have been doing just that. They create videos of people talking about how they lost their family members during the chaos of partition. Those videos are viewed by millions of people who then, in the luckiest cases, help track down those missing family members so they can reunite. The pair produced their videos out of Dhillon's garage.

This is the studio.

They showed me some of their videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: They've got more than 96 million views. Singh says the videos go viral because many Pakistanis and Indians want to heal the wounds of partition.

SINGH: (Through interpreter) The partition happened. But we can move on and show each other love.

HADID: It's a love echoed in the friendship of the two men. Singh is from Pakistan's Sikh minority, Dhillon from the Muslim majority. They bonded years ago over their interest in partition history. And with every video that goes viral, more hopeful families get in touch. Now they're trying to find the brother of Sharifa Bibi. They've made a video of her story and uploaded it to their YouTube channel. Sharifa Bibi guesses she's more than 80 years old.

SHARIFA BIBI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Sharifa Bibi's brother got lost when her family were fleeing their village in India. Their mother was holding his hand, but she had to let go of him as rioters demanded the gold ring off her finger.

BIBI: (Through interpreter) He must have got scared and run away. My relatives looked for him, even in the canal, where the rioters tossed the bodies of dead Muslims.

HADID: We met in the town of Burewala, where Sharifa Bibi's family built a new life. But she says her mother never got over the loss.

BIBI: (Through interpreter) My mother was always crying for her lost son.

HADID: And her son was crying for her. He tried to find her.

All right. Now Sharifa Bibi's in the middle.

To help us understand, Sharifa Bibi's family drives us through cornfields to a nearby village...

OK. (Non-English language spoken).

MOHAMMAD ASGHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: ...To meet an elderly man called Mohammad Asghar.

ASGHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: We greet him and he says, Sharifa Bibi looks just like her brother, the one she hasn't seen in 75 years. Here's how he knows. Mohammad Asghar used to be a horse and cart driver, and around 35 years ago, as he waited for customers outside the Burewala train station, he met a man from India who was asking if anybody knew his family.

ASGHAR: (Through interpreter) He cried to me that he lost his family in partition and that he was adopted by a rich Hindu couple.

HADID: Asghar says the man told him his name was Ranjeet but that he was born a Muslim and believed his family had settled in the area. Asghar took pity on the man and invited him home. For about two weeks, they clip-clopped from village to village.

ASGHAR: (Through interpreter) We went to all the village mosques and told people there is a man here from India, and he's looking for his family. He lost them in partition. Did anybody here lose a son? About a dozen families came forward. But they said, no, this isn't our boy.

HADID: After a few weeks of searching, Ranjeet lost hope and packed his bags. But as he was leaving...

ASGHAR: (Through interpreter) Ranjeet told me, I work as a vet at the Delhi Race Club. If you ever have news about my family, come to India. Just wait till 2 p.m. when I finish work and meet me at the gate.

HADID: At around that time, Sharifa Bibi heard about the man from India.

BIBI: (Through interpreter) A woman told me he's looking for his brothers and sisters.

HADID: Sharifa Bibi be tracked down Asghar and rushed over with her parents. But Ranjeet had already left. She says her mother collapsed. She saw some socks on the floor. Ranjeet had left them behind.

BIBI: (Through interpreter) She snatched them and said, did these belong to my son? Then she buried her face in them. My father did, too. And they wept.

HADID: But for the first time in decades, they also had hope. Sharifa Bibi says her mother was like a woman revived.

BIBI: (Through interpreter) My mother swelled with hope. She said it was like her breasts filled with milk again.

HADID: Sharifa Bibi's sister and husband went to the New Delhi racing track to try find him. But as Pakistanis in India, they were treated with suspicion.

BIBI: (Through interpreter) When my sister returned empty handed, my parents were broken. They died a few years later, crying over their son.

HADID: As we sit with Asghar, he tells us something that Sharifa Bibi has never heard before, that this was the second time that her brother tried to find his family in Burewala. Asghar says during partition, after Ranjeet let go of his mother's hand...

ASGHAR: (Through interpreter) He followed other Muslims fleeing to Pakistan. They came to this train station. He slept here for a few nights.

HADID: Asghar says Ranjeet remembered the name of the station. He thought it might be important to his story. But he couldn't remember how he ended up back in India. Sharifa Bibi's overcome as she hears this and faints.

What's wrong? Are you OK? Are you OK? Pani.

They call for water, and Sharifa Bibi revives.

BIBI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And even though decades have passed since she last heard of her brother, she says, my brother, you cried for us. And we cried for you. She calls out, are you listening, brother? If you're listening, please come and see me. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Burewala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 11, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly say the elderly sister and brother who hugged one another hadn't seen each other since childhood and were separated 75 years ago. In fact, two had never seen one another before, because the brother was born after the sister was separated from her father during Partition. Also, we incorrectly say the two have the same mother; in fact, the brother was born to their father's second wife after his first wife, the mother of the sister, died during Partition.
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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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