THE MIRACLE THAT REFUSED TO HAPPEN
by Mast Qalandar
This story was meant to be a part of the post on Punja Sahib that appeared on these very pages last month. But I had left it out lest I make the post too lengthy. The post on Punja Sahib stayed on the Discussions Board for a day or two and then disappeared, I thought, forever. But I was intrigued to see recently that it had somehow climbed into the “Top Hits”. I don’t know how to interpret this climb, nor would I want to read too much into it. Is it, perhaps, the result of random hits signifying nothing? Nevertheless, it did make me look up the old story and post this one as a sequel to it.
Here is the story. On the night of October 29, 1922 a special train left Amritsar, headed towards Peshawar. Among the passengers on board were a number of Sikh prisoners who were being shipped to Attock Fort to serve their prison sentence of two and half years each.These prisoners, and hundreds of others like them, were summarily tried and convicted by the British administration for participating in a non-violent agitation sparked by the Gurdawara Reform Movement at the time. The Reformists wanted to rid the gurdawaras and their shrines of the control of the hereditary “mahants” (somewhat akin to the Muslim gaddi nashins) who had started misusing their positions for personal gains. The British administration, for some reason, seemed to take the side of the mahants and would arrest and punish the protesting Sikhs, often beating them inhumanly, even for minor violations. This provoked more protests, and large-scale arrests and convictions followed
Because of the clear injustice meted out to them, the prisoners aroused widespread sympathy among the Sikh community and became instant heroes.The train from Amritsar arrived at Rawalpindi on the morning of 30 October. After the change of the crew and servicing of the engine, it steamed out of Rawalpindi station with the instructions that it was not to stop until it reached Attock. Hassan Abdal, the home of Punja Sahib, fell on the train route and ordinary trains routinely stopped here.
The word reached the Sikh community at Punja Sahib that the Sikh prisoners would be passing through Hassan Abdal on their way to Attock Fort. This caused a great deal of excitement in the community and they decided that the least they could do was to be present at the station and serve the prisoners a quick meal on the train. So, they had the food prepared and took it to the train station ahead of the expected arrival time of the train.
The stationmaster, when he saw all this excitement at his otherwise sleepy little station, informed the Sikhs that the train was not scheduled to stop at Hassan Abdal and, therefore, there was no point of bringing food to the station. The Sikhs implored him to stop the train just long enough for them to serve food to the prisoners. But their entreaties failed. The train will not stop at Hassan Abdal, they were told bluntly. “All right then”, said a strapping young Karam Singh, barely 30, who was among the leaders of the crowd, “We will stop the train!” and added, “if Baba Nanak could stop that massive rock rolling down the hill with one hand, can’t we, so many, stop a train?” Another young man, twenty four year old Partap Singh, chimed in, “Yes, we can, and we will.”
At about ten o’clock, on a crisp and cloudless morning typical of Potohar autumn season, the train emerged from the Margalla pass spewing out clouds of black smoke. When the Sikhs at the station noticed the smoke, a joyous shout went up in the crowd, “Bole so nihal.. sat sri akaal” and many of them, led by Karam Singh, jumped on to the tracks and squatted there cross-legged. Next to Karam Singh sat young Partap Singh followed by others – both men and women. They were convinced in their mind that the train would, somehow, stop.
Approaching the station, the driver noticed from a distance people squatting on the tracks. He simply could not believe his eyes. He was under orders not to stop the train in any circumstances. He blew the whistle long and hard but to no effect. No one budged. He blew the whistle again, and again – and yet again. No one moved. The train continued hurtling towards the station. The horrified driver simply closed his eyes. The vacuum lever (controlling the braking system) dropped from his hands, the wheels screeched against the tracks sending out showers of sparks. There was a loud thud and the train came to a halt – but not before hitting the first man and pushing him into the others raising a mound of mangled bodies. The station was instantly engulfed in shrieks, groans and shouts mingled with the huffing and hissing of the angry steam engine, which, it seemed, was angry at his path being obstructed.
Every one at the station rushed to help, but Karam Singh, who lay mangled and dying, stopped his rescuers by saying: “Serve the food to the hungry prisoners first and then help me”. It took one and a half hours before the tracks were cleared and the prisoners fed (I wonder if they were able to eat) and the train resumed its journey. Bhai Karam Singh died within few hours while Bhai Partap Singh died the next day. It is not known how many others died later but many people were severely injured.
Tailpiece: On 15 April, 2007, at the Vesakhi festival at Punja Sahib, the Pakistani federal minister for religious affairs announced to the Sikh pilgrims that the government of Pakistan would build a memorial at Hassan Abdal in memory of the train tragedy that occurred there on October 30, 1922. Commemorating resistance to injustice is, I believe, a good idea.
Mast Qalandar is a Pakistani Writer living in Islamabad.
Note: The story is based on the information gleaned from Internet sources and so are the pictures. This post first appeared in Adil Najam’s pakistaniat.com website.
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