Toba, Ye Asylum!

When the midnight stroke divided the Indian sub-continent, millions lost their homes and hearths, while hearts suffered in craving for their roots. One such craving came from frontier Uri. Bilal Handoo visits the border town to report Kashmir’s curious case of Toba Tek Singh

Desh Raj
Desh Raj

God was enacting Toba Tek Singh on divided soils of Kashmir shortly after the great partition of sub-continent. Hundreds of uprooted persons turned ‘lunatics’ had arrived in Kashmir aka political ‘asylum’. Even that audacious writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, the one who faced six petitions for his ‘obscene’ pen short-lived to see how his story became the natural plot of the broken lives created by the huge break up.

The same split forced two brothers, Desh Raj and Ram Lal, of Muzaffarabad’s Khanda village to abandon everything including 120 kanals of farmland to walk into Kashmir for safety. Amid tumultuous run of politics, the brothers appeared like mad men, having no idea about the events happening around them.

Amid gore, the geography was getting a facelift. Boundaries were being drawn on war-footing. To guard them, troopers were defacing farmlands, orchards by laying coils of razor wires.

Anticipating it a passing trouble, the brothers waited for the announcement, like the one that sent the wretched souls in Manto’s celebrated short story beyond borders…

Two or three years after 1947 Partition, the Indo-Pak governments decided to exchange their lunatics. Muslim lunatics in India and, Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be exchanged… In Lahore’s lunatic asylum, the news created stir besides funny developments… “Sardarji,” a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh, “why are we being deported to India? We don’t even know their language?”

“But I know the language of Hindostoras,” another Sikh replied with smile. “These bloody Indians, the way they strut about!”

While taking a bath, a Muslim lunatic one day yelled, “Pakistan Zindabad!” He yelled with such a force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious…

Ram Lal
Ram Lal

Scenes were no different in disputed, divided Kashmir. Lakhs of families had arrived from Muzafarabad and Mirpur. They mostly settled in Jammu’s Vijaynagar. A few of them scattered in Kupwara, Shopian, Uri and other parts.

After fleeing Muzafarabad, the two brothers took shelter at Srinagar’s Amira Kadal. During that political upheaval, they began doing some odd jobs. Desh Raj was sharper among the two. He began working as medical orderly, while Ram Lal kept yearning to revisit his roots. But stiffening political stands had made it an impossible goal. Travel and communication between what became Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Indian-administered Kashmir were indefinitely suspended. Then, Ram Lal learned, how the Cease-fire Line (now Line of Control) – the de facto border in Kashmir – separated families and severed several villages. Under this intense trauma, Toba Tek Singh got resurrected…

Not all the inmates were insane… They had only a vague idea about the partition and were utterly ignorant about the situation… But they knew that there was a man called Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate nation for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was.

That was why they were all at a loss – whether they were in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan!

One lunatic got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that he climbed up a tree one day. He harangued people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. When asked to come down, he climbed higher, shouting, “I don’t want to live in India and Pakistan. I’m going to make my home right here on this tree.”

To escape Srinagar’s political commotion, Ram Lal requested his brother, “Let’s settle somewhere closer to our roots.” One fine day in 1950, they left Srinagar and its politics for good, and settled in border town. They inhabited Lagama, a hamlet barely 80km from their homeland in Muzafarabad.

As time passed, Ram Lal saw boundaries only getting deep and deadly. His hopes dashed when the region became a major war theatre during 1965, 71 Indo-Pak battles. Each confrontation would make the brothers restive. To address cravings for their roots, they began visiting every rank and file in government set up. But in the din of politics, they never found salvation. Instead they were told, “Stop flogging a dead horse!” Perhaps the advice was too dangerous to turn down.

As the focus shifted, the erstwhile landlords called Nanawatis in Muzafarabad became Sharmas in Lagama. By 1972, Desh Raj married a girl, Ram Chameli, of a Bandi Brahmana’s Hindu family. Two years later, the couple was blessed with a son, Rohit alias Raju. Later, Raju was joined by two sisters.

But while Desh Raj restarted his life, his brother Ram Lal continued to lead a life of celibacy. “His lost love wasn’t encouraging him to restart his life,” says Raju, sitting inside his grocery shop in Lagama, a sleepy hamlet on Srinagar-Muzafarabad Highway.

Ram Lal’s behaviour seemed in sync with a lunatic inside Lahore’s asylum.

Among the lunatics was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore. He had gone mad because of unrequited love. He was deeply pained when he learnt that his beloved’s home in Amritsar would form part of India. In rage, he roundly abused all the leaders for the partition and held them responsible for making his beloved an Indian, and him, a Pakistani.

By the time nineties dawned, some Lagama Hindus fled valley, following footsteps of Kashmiri pandits. But the Nanawatis-turned-Sharmas stayed put. “Our Muslim neighbours promised to protect our lives at the cost of theirs,” Raju says. Amid heightened security onslaught over valley, staying back had its own cost. By 1996, Raju realised that when he landed in army custody.

“Why didn’t you migrate, like other Hindus?” he remembers army telling him.

“Why should I? It’s my village. Where I am supposed to go, leaving all this behind?”

“Look, you son of a b*****! We know, you are having militant links. So, tell us, and spare your life, otherwise, we know how to make you talk.”

“Officer, I told you, I have nothing to do with militancy…”

It was after timely intervention from Lagama Muslims that ensured Raju’s acquittal from army custody, but not before, he faced their worst.

Three years later in 1999, the Indo-Pak borders became slightly porous. Cross-border transport initiatives like Delhi-Lahore Bus, Samjhauta and Thar Express were started. Before witnessing the history, Desh Raj passed away.

By then, Ram Lal had almost grown cynical. He would often blurt satirical remarks whenever Indo-Pak claimed normalcy and peace on ‘borders’. On such occasions, he would sound like the protagonist of Toba Tek Singh…

There was a Sikh lunatic in the asylum, admitted fifteen years ago. He hadn’t slept a wink in all this time and wouldn’t even lie down to rest. His agonized feet had swollen with continuous standing. But this wouldn’t stop him to listen keenly to all Indo-Pak discussions between lunatics.

If someone asked his views on the subject he would reply in a grave tone: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the Government of Pakistan.” Later he substituted “the Government of Pakistan” with “Tobak Tek Singh”, his hometown.

He would often ask, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” But nobody seemed to know where it was. Those who tried to explain themselves got bogged down in another enigma: Sialkot, which used to be in India, now was in Pakistan. Perhaps the whole of India might become Pakistan. It was all so confusing! And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely disappear from the face of the earth one day?

This Sikh lunatic was a well-off landlord from Toba Tek Singh, who had unexpectedly gone mad one day, forcing his family to drop him to the asylum in chains… His name was Bishan Singh but everybody called him Toba Tek Singh. He had no idea of days he spent in that asylum…

Rohit alias Raju at his shop in Lagama
Rohit alias Raju at his shop in Lagama

In between, 2003 dawned, and India and Pakistan announced ceasefire in Kashmir to improve their relations. The two governments then worked on the proposal for a LoC bus service, connecting Srinagar with Muzaffarabad. It took two neighbours 52 years to bridge the gap they created in Kashmir with bus service, gloated as a “humanitarian measure without prejudice” by Delhi.

The announcement was eureka moment for the aged Ram Lal. He insisted his nephew to secure the travel pass. But once they applied at Srinagar’s Regional Passport Office – the designated authority to evaluate applications, verify identities and issue entry permits, the duo was told: “You people can’t travel through this bus.”

“But, why?”

“It is meant for separated families, not for you, who have none in Muzafarabad.”

The reply left the elderly Ram Lal, waiting all his life for this moment, heartbroken. Raju recalls, his uncle wept like a child over this political condition. Even his 60 years of withering wait couldn’t undo the damage of the partition.

The old scars then bled afresh on April 7, 2005, when the Srinagar-Muzafarabad bus service was officially flagged-off by then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Ram Lal was standing among thousands watching the history in making. He was too close, yet too far.

Later he pleaded with one of his Muzafarabad-bound Muslim neighbours to visit his birthplace, “Just visit the locality behind the old graveyard in Khanda. You might find a purani haweli there near swathes of farmland. That is where we used to live. Just visit there, for my sake!”

Days later when the neighbour returned, he told the eager Ram Lal, “I visited your birthplace. Be happy, all your property is intact there. It is under the protection of PaK government.” Those words were pleasing, yet equally disturbing as they triggered fresh craving for his roots, just like Toba Tek Singh…

One day his Muslim friend, Fazal Din, from Toba Tek Singh came to meet him.

“Where is Toba Tek Singh?” Singh asked him.

“Where? Why, it is where it has always been.”

“In India or Pakistan?”

“In Pakistan,” Din replied.

And then one of the lunatics declared himself God. Singh approached him to get answer of his often repeated question, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?”

“It’s neither in India nor in Pakistan,” the mad man replied. “In fact, it is nowhere, because till now, I have not taken any decision about its location!”

Even Ram Lal’s views were no different. He was aware of Kashmir’s political reality and Kashmiris’ struggle for rights to self determination, says Raju. But after missing his cherished moment to the political clause, he began making exhaustible visits to Prime Minister, President of India along with his nephew and his brother’s widow to take up their case. It was a silent struggle against a strident one of their Jammu counterparts, demanding monthly cash doles, ration money, and educational reservation for their wards.

But the struggle couldn’t go on, as Ram Lal, like the Sikh lunatic of Lahore asylum, was fading fast…

Saadat Hasan Manto.
Saadat Hasan Manto.

On a cold winter evening, truckloads of Hindu and Sikh lunatics from Lahore asylum were taken to Wagah border for crossing over… All the clueless lunatics resisted the forcible exchange… On his turn, Bishan Singh asked the official, “Where’s Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?”

“In Pakistan, of course,” the officer laughed loudly.

Singh turned, ran back to join his companions upon hearing this. The Pakistani guards caught him, tried to push him across the line to India. But he wouldn’t move. “This is Toba Tek Singh,” he announced…He stood on his swollen legs as if no power on earth could dislodge him.

As everybody rushed towards him, the man who had stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on to the ground. A barbed wire separated the lunatics of India from Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

In Lagama, re-enactment of Manto’s classic concluded with the demise of Ram Lal. Even his death couldn’t undo the partition dent and political asylum.

But till his death, says Raju, his uncle would assert, “Our Khanda (his birthplace) is neither in India nor in Pakistan… because we are yet to exercise our right to self determination.”

Ram Lal, thus was no different from that mad man who played God in Lahore’s asylum, “Toba Tek Singh was neither in India nor in Pakistan… because till now, I haven’t taken any decision about its location!”

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